A Quiet Place (15)
After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.
Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.
There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.
Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.
Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Death Wish (15)
Given the current heightened debate about gun control in America with calls to arm teachers and protests about police ineffectuality, Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante thriller is either right on the zeitgeist button or incredibly ill-timed. Either way, it’s pretty rubbish. Updating the set up to contemporary Chicago it has Bruce Willis sleepwalking his way through the role of Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon who, when his wife (Elizabeth Shue) is killed and his daughter (Camila Morrone) left in a coma after when a burglary goes wrong (they’re attacked at home while baking him a birthday cake, no less), frustrated at the lack of progress in the case, he decides to follow his father-in-law’s advice and, getting a gun (from a dead gangbanger) and a hoodie (from the hospital trash bins), take matters into his own hands.
Unlike Bronson’s pacifist, who had to persuade himself to take action, Kersley here has no qualms, indeed, he rather turned on by it judging by his smile after his first killing, foiling a carjacking by being in the right place at the right time. When a witness’s phone video of the incident goes viral, he’s dubbed the Grim Reaper and, when, during surgery, he gets a link to those involved in the bloody robbery, rather than share with the cops, he tools up and goes after them, one scene having him indulge in some graphic torture, utilising his surgeon skills, to get the name of the actual killer. Meanwhile, the cops, represented by Detective Rains (Dean Norris) aren’t overly concerned at the bad guy body count and seems almost reluctant to follow up when the clues point to Kersley.
If that’s what you want, the violence is well-handled, but there’s no soul and no sense of moral conflict about what Kersley does and, should you miss the irony of his two chosen career paths, the opening credits helpfully spell it out with a split screen featuring different shots showing his hands handling his twin power tools, a scalpel and bullets. There’s also a scene when Kersley visits a gun store and the gung ho female sales assistant runs him through the merchandise, assuring him everyone passes the safety checks, but it’s more about a joke than any pointed social satire, and, with the somewhat pointless addition of Vincent D’Onofrio as his screw-up brother and repetitive cutaways to assorted TV and radio debates about vigilante justice (“You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people, you don’t have a problem with that?”), it feels unnecessarily padded out.
Willis, in his first proper lead role in ages, goes through the motions with his trademark smirk and dead-eyed routine, unaffected by the carnage he wreaks or inspired (when he sees a news report of a copycat family man being killed he has zero response), a description that could well apply to film itself. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Ghost Stories (15)
Adapted from the successful stage play by writer-directors Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the former reprising his stage role, this sits firmly in the anthology tradition of 60s British portmanteau horror movies, but comes with a connecting thread that culminates in a twist of a very different nature.
Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a Jewish atheist, rationally-minded academic and TV celebrity debunker of the supposed paranormal, first seen here exposing a so-called medium’s tricks. Out of the blue he receives a message from his similarly styled 70sTV hero, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), long vanished and presumed dead, who invites him to disprove three cases that have left him doubting his disbelief in the supernatural.
The first takes Goodman to Tony (Paul Whitehouse), who claims to have witnessed the ghost of a young girl while working as a night watchman at an deserted former psychiatric hospital, the second to Simon (Alex Lawther), a young man who had an encounter with some creature while driving home late one night (and who claims he’s alone in the house despite Goodman seeing his dysfunctional parents), and, thirdly, Mike (Martin Freeman), an ant-Semitic widowed ex-banker apparently haunted by the poltergeist of his unborn child after his wife died in childbirth who, takes Goodman out on the Yorkshire moors and then shoots himself.
Their experiences are all replayed in flashbacks, during which Goodman, who had a harsh childhood and is haunted by an unexplained (and male) guilt and anxiety also experiences flashbacks of his own, gradually linking everything to his own troubles.
The three ghost stories play out with a knowing awareness of the genre clichés they involve, but there’s far more to them than these as, adopting the technique of the unreliable narrator, is eventually explained in the final stretch again involving Freeman’s character and a journey to a traumatic past and a clever if illogical final reveal. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
I Kill Giants (15)
A thematic and stylistic companion piece to A Monster Calls that uses a child’s fantasies as an escape from racing real world fears and suffering, debut director Anders Walters works magic with a screenplay adapted by Joe Kelly from his own graphic novel. He’s also graced with a terrific performance from Madison Wolfe as Barbara, a young girl who, living with her elder sister (Imogen Poots), doing the best to keep the family afloat, and a brother who seems to spend all his time on computer games, who wears rabbit ears (her animal spirit) and spends her time concocting potions and building traps to kill the giants she believes to be inhabiting the woods, waiting to wreak devastation. Terrified of the monster that apparently lurks upstairs in her home, she also carries with her a pocket book inscribed with the name of a once famous baseball player and which she says contains the magical weapon that will help her in what she believes to be the coming final confrontation.
At school, she’s the target for bullying and has regular sessions with the school psychiatrist, Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana), who’s trying to get to the bottom of what’s troubling her. Striking up a friendship with Sophia (Sydney Wade), a new girl just arrived from Leeds, Barbara seeks to protect her too but, as with Molle, also keeps her at arm’s length when it comes to talking about her real world issues. As events build to a climax, she spends more time skipping school, lashes out at her therapist and her friendship with Sophia becomes strained as she imagines the giants closing in, the film keeping it open as to whether they are a figment of her imagination or realer than they might seem.
There’s a major plot flaw concerning why no one, Molle especially, doesn’t put two and two together, but that only becomes evident in the last act when the truth behind Barbara’s fears and fantasies are revealed, but, otherwise, featuring brief cameos from Noel Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, Wolfe’s complex and deeply felt portrayal ensures the grip on your emotions is held firm. (Until Mon: Showcase Walsall)
Love, Simon (12A)
The first teenage gay coming out movie for mainstream audience, adapted from a young adult novel, director Greg Berlanti strikes a pioneering moment for cinema. And, even if it lacks the emotional nuances of something like Call Me By Your Name it also happens to be very good. As the opening voice over (subsequently revisited later in the film) announces, Simon (Nick Robinson) is your average all round decent high school teenage son of white liberal middle-class professionals (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and supportive brother to his younger sister. The only person he’s told is another anonymous gay classmate calling himself Blue, who’s been posting on a school blog and with whom he he’s virtually fallen in love, except, of course, he’s not used his real name either, calling himself Jacques. Intrigued and looking for clues, Simon starts fantasising who Blue might be – school jock Bram (Kelynan Lonsdale), soulful Cal (Miles Heizer) or perhaps Lyle (Joey Pollari), the ex-student who now works down the local burger joint, but ultimately none seem to fit the bill.
Simon’s also one of a quartet of best buddies that includes Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), feisty recent school transfer Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and doting childhood chum Leah (Katherine Langford). It’s pretty clear from the start that she has a secret crush on him, while Nick would like his relationship with Abby to be more than platonic. However, she’s also the object of affection for opportunistic show-off weirdo, Martin (Logan Miller), who discovers Simon’s secret when he forgets to log out of his email on a school computer and threatens to out him unless he helps him get close to her. Naturally, when that doesn’t work out (in a gloriously romantic but excruciatingly embarrassing public declaration of his feelings), in a fit of pique he posts Simon’s and Blue’s emails, leading the latter to block communication and Simon’s lies to and manipulations of his friends to be exposed. And, while his folks are hugely supportive, it does of course, make him a target to the school’s resident homophobes.
Since this is a standard high school romcom feelgood funny and poignant crowd pleaser but given a gay slant, it’ll be no surprise that it all ends happily, gently massaging in messages about friendship and having the courage to be who you are along the way. Robinson is slightly bland for a central character, but nevertheless endearingly likeable while the supporting cast are solid, and, if a little of Tony Hale goes a long way as the wannabe down with the kids cool Vice Principal, Clark Moore as Ethan, the only openly out student, a flamboyant cross dresser with a sharp line in put downs, and Natasha Rothwell as the no bullshit drama teacher in charge of the school’s production of Cabaret are both scene stealers. The film’s been previewed to death, but, with its strong repeat watch factor (even when you know who Blue actually is), this should easily pull in both new and returning audiences, of all sexual orientations, to prove one of the year’s biggest hits. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Maya The Bee: The Honey Games (U)
Although , as with the 2014 big screen debut, the animated German version is again cross-pollinated into English with an Australian cast, the follow up only features Coco Jack Williams and Richard Roxburgh from the original lead voices as the irrepressible bee Maya and bandleader grasshopper Flip. However, the charm remains in a hive version of The Hunger Games when, after the Empress of Buzztroplis demands half of Poppy Meadow’s meagre honey harvest as tribute, dragging Willi along, Maya impulsively flies off to protest. Accidentally covering the Empress in honey and insisting Poppy Meadow is as good as any of the other teams invited to compete, she’s told she can take part, but, if they’re eliminated, the Empress will take all of the Poppy Meadow honey.
Given she and Willi have been landed with a motley misfit crew of no hoper bugs, including an emo spider and bumbling soldier ants Arnie and Barney, and that spoiled mean bee Violet, who leads team Buzztropolis and is the daughter of the Games Master, has it in for her, they’re most definitely the underbees in the contest. But, with a whole heap of courage and Maya learning a lesson in teamwork, they’re determined to win and save Poppy Meadow. It’s no bees knees animation, like Pixar or DreamWorks, but, bright, colourful and with a solid message, for those of the right age it buzzes along on enjoyable wings. (Vue Star City)
Sweet Country (15)
Set in the 1920s in the Northern Territory, director Warwick Thornton’s Australian Western (significantly there’s Johnny Cash track over the end credits) is slow to the point of ponderous, but, despite the longeurs, still succeeds in involving with its understated combination of character study and observations on cultural erosion, colonialism and the injustices and hardships suffered by Aboriginals (not to mention other indigenous peoples reduced to slavery) at the hands of prejudiced whites that resulted in a still often unresolved cycle of violence and resentment.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Sent by his liberal-minded Christian preacher employer Fred (Sam Neill) to help Harry (Ewen Leslie), the bitter war veteran whose come to manage a neighbouring station, renovate his cattle yards, middle-edged Aboriginal worker Sam (Hamilton Morris) and his wife do a good job despite Harry’s simmering hostility and unsettling interest in their niece. Sent packing when they’ve done, Harry, unbeknownst to Sam, having (in a scene shot in complete darkness) raped his wife, something he takes as a given privilege, a further run in occurs when, Harry and his Aboriginal foreman, come looking for Philomac (Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), the young halfbreed son of Kennedy (Thomas Wright), another white settler, who’d escaped and run off after being chained to a rock for theft.
Drunk and firing off his rifle, Harry bursts in on the house and is duly shot and killed by Sam, forcing him and his wife to go on the run into the unforgiving, harsh outback as, wanted for murder, he’s hunted down by a posse that includes Fred and Kennedy and is led by bloodlust consumed local police offer Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), culminating in a trial back in town where it remains to be seen if justice is served.
Although there’s burst of violence, this is a mostly muted, low key almost Old Testament affair that arguably spends far too long on the extended pursuit, including a lengthy sequence with Fletcher alone and without water on the salt flats. It also features some brief memory flashbacks and premonition flashforwards that add to the at times visually poetic mood, but also serve to muddle the narrative. Hamilton is excellent as the quietly dignified and stoical Sam while Brown is a fierce study in self-loathing, repressed anger and obsession, the film ending with a fist to the gut that leaves you despairing for humanity. (Fri-Sun: MAC)
Bombshell-The Hedy Lamarr Story (12A)
Documentary about the Austrian-Jewish 40s Hollywood star, the first actress to depict the female orgasm on screen and on whose look Snow White was based, but whose most significant achievements lay in the fields of science. A pioneer in communications, she invented a covert communication system to help defeat the Nazis, only to have the pater rejected by the Navy and told to sell kisses for war bonds instead. However, towards the end of her life, her concept was rediscovered and went on to form the basis for secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth. (Tue:MAC)
The Divine Order (12A)
Set in Switzerland in 1971, where women still didn’t have the vote, this addresses the issue of women’s suffrage in the story of housewife Nora (Marie Leuenberger), who, forbidden by her husband to take a part-time job, sees her become a symbol of the town’s suffragette movement. Despite confronting humiliation, threats and the potential collapse pf her marriage, she refuses to give in and persuades the women in the village to go on strike in advance of the impending vote – by men – as to whether to extend votes to women. (Fri-Tue:MAC)
The Third Murder (15)
A Japanese police procedural wherein Shigemori, a leading attorney takes on the case of a previously convicted murderer who is accused of a new killing. Despite the fact his client has pleaded guilty, knowing he faces the death penalty if convicted, Shigemori is not persuaded this is the open and shut case it seems, seeking justice while questioning his own faith in the law. (Mon-Thu: MAC)
A disappointingly small release for debut director Cory Finley’s adaptation of his stage play, highly acclaimed black comedy noir thriller in which estranged former schoolfriends, the psychologically troubled Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and the tight-laced Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), are reunited when the former’s mother pays the latter to come and tutor her daughter at their palatial mansion. Both sharing a lack of empathy (at one point Amada shows Lily how to fake it), as they re-establish whatever friendship they once had, Lily begins to open up about her hatred for her emotionally abusive macho stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), prompting Amanda to suggest they arrange to have him killed, to which end they bully local drug-dealing fuck-up Tim (the late Anton Yelchin’s final role) to help them pull it off.
Taking visual cues from The Shining alongside a blackly comic sensibility that evokes the teen nihilism of Heathers by way of Bret Easton Ellis, with all the razor sharp one-liners that implies, it keeps to glued as it builds to a jaw-dropping climax. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Black Panther (12A)
First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.
However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario, believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.
As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.
It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi; Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda; and, especially, Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.
Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.
The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The directorial debut of Pitch Perfect co-writer Kay Cannon, the title a cinema billboard friendly shortening of Cock Blockers, this slots comfortably into the same crude rude but funny box in a line that stretches back from Bridesmaid and Trainwreck to Porkys and American Pie. Meeting on their first day at a Chicago primary school, preppy Julie (Kathryn Newton), socially awkward Sam (Gideon Adlon) and acerbic athlete Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) become inseparable friends, although their respective parents, clingy single mom (Leslie Mann), ultra-sensitive overprotective jock Mitchell (John Cena) and disreputable absent father divorcee Hunter (Ike Barinholtz channelling Mark Whalberg) haven’t maintained the same bonds.
Prom Night is looming and Julie (who’s not told mom she’s moving to college in a different state) has determined to lose her virginity to nice guy boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) and, having detailed how this is going to happen, Kayla decides she’s going to pop her cherry too, targeting the school’s gourmet drugs chemist Connor (Miles Robbins) as the lucky recipient. Despite being secretly gay, with a crush on Japanese lesbian, Sam signs up for the sex pact too, her prom date being her friend Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), a chubby dork in a pork pie hat.
Unfortunately, Julie accidentally leaves her message app running on her tablet and all their texts are read by her mother who immediately enlists Mitchell in her mission to prevent her daughter making a mistake she’ll regret (cue echoes of her own life). Mitchell’s wife (Sarayu Blue) tells them they should be ashamed of themselves while Hunter, who’s unexpectedly turned up for the get together to mark the girls’ graduations, also reckons this is a bad idea but, on learning Sam’s in on it, and aware that she’s gay, enthusiastically tags along to stop her doing something she doesn’t want to do.
Of course daughters and parents all get to learn life lessons about themselves and each other, about responsibility, trust and letting go, but not before a series of hilarious moments that range from the parents crashing a prom party and Mitchell chugging beer through his arse (don’t ask), a disastrous car chase and Lisa finding herself trapped in a hotel bedroom with Julie and Austin as they get frisky to Kayla getting out of her head on Connor’s concoctions and Mitchell and Hunter caught up in Connor’s parents naked, blindfold sex games.
Hopping between parents and daughters, there’s some unnecessary vulgarity, scrotum clutching included, barfing but also considerable more sweetness and observations about parents’ paranoia about their daughters’ sex lives and the need to let them make their own decisions. The leads are all terrific, Mann getting to show off her physical comedy skills. And there’s real chemistry between the three girls but, a combination of some of the best line, her delivery, timing and facial expressions, it’s Viswanathan who steals the film and clearly has a very bright comedy future ahead of her. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Duck Duck Goose (PG)
Named for an old children’s game and sharing its title with a couple of horror movies, not to mention a London Cantonese restaurant, this is a middling Anglo-Chinese-American animation for the Easter toddler market. Peng (Jim Gaffigan) is a Chinese goose with a superiority complex who refuses to conform with flock rules (“do we always have to fly in a V formation” he demands), not least practising for the upcoming annual migration, which ruffles the feathers of the flock leader, who also happens to be his girlfriend’s dad, who consigns him to guiding the junior geese.
While showing off his speed and stunts, he accidentally hits a flock of duckling, separating brother and sister Chao and Chi (Zendaya) and ultimately damaging his wing. Unable to fly, reckoning they’ll be a distraction for any potential predators, he offers to guide the ducklings back to the others en route to Paradise Valley, embarking on a long journey in which, pursued by a psychotic schizophrenic cat (Greg Proops), he’ll naturally learn lessons about unconditional love, responsibility and family.
Routinely animated and lurching from one slapstick moment and fart gag to another, it has its mildly amusing moments, but lacks any sense of ambition or, ultimately, charm. Stephen Fry and Craig Ferguson voice a couple of supercilious flamingos, veteran actor Carl Reiner is a turtle and Jennifer Grey a mother hen, but there’s little here to stop your mind turning to phrases like ‘a l’orange’. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Vue Star City)
Finding Your Feet (12A)
This year’s bid for the grey pound audience comes with both an impressive ensemble cast drawn from the ranks of more senior British actors and a plot that hews comfortably closely to the genre’s familiar clichés. Reliably directed by Richard Loncraine, it has Imelda Staunton as Sandra – Lady – Abbott who, at the celebrations for his elevation of his enoblement – discovers her husband Mike (John Sessions) has been having a five-year affair with her best friend Pamela (Josie Lawrence). Understandably miffed, she storms out of their idyllic suburban mansion and fetches up at the council estate tenement London flat of her erstwhile left-wing activist sister, Bif (Celia Imrie), whom she’s not seen for the past ten years after their lives went separate ways. The one a prim and proper – and somewhat snobby – traditionalist, the other a free spirit who still enjoys sex and is part of a local dance club with her friends, antique furniture restorer and odd job man Charlie (Timothy Spall), retired lawyer Jackie (Joanna Lumley who has the funniest – if hardly original – line) and Ted (David Heyman) who doesn’t seem to do much at all. Charlie and Ted live on barges, the latter’s wife having passed away, the former’s (Sian Thomas) in a nursing home suffering from dementia.
The relationship between the sisters is initially frosty, as is that between Sandra and Charlie, but, inevitably the chill thaws, bonds are renewed, new attractions formed. Equally inevitably, there’s a terminal illness waiting in someone’s wings as sure as the film carries a live life, be who you really are message.
In an unlikely development in order to provide some location colour, the dance club members are talent-spotted while performing a Christmas flash mob multi-style dance routine in aid of Age UK (cue some product placement proselytizing by Lumley) and invited to take part in a dance show in Rome. So, will Sandra loosen up, change her constipated hairstyle, dance while she vacuums and bring music back into her life, will she and Charlie fall in love at the Trevi fountain, will Mike come asking for her to take him back, will there be life decisions to be made? Do you really need to ask.
Resolutely inoffensive (there’s jokes about laxatives and penises and one f word), the script predictably balances sobs and smiles, laughter and tears while, since the feelgood is the keyword, only ever skirting the OAP issues of ageing, loneliness, love and mortality. With performances are as solid as you expect and the dance routines never unconvincingly slick, it’s warm, snuffly, bittersweet stuff that will appeal to those who found The Exotic Marigold Hotel a bit too demanding, but it totters rather than glides across the cinematic dance floor. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Game Night (15)
The year’s funniest film so far, this is an often hilarious ensemble comedy that still manages to find room for a dose of violence (though always in context) in its cocktail of suburban hysteria, sleight of hand illusion, marital problems and the ever reliable drug runners and mobsters out for revenge plot.
With a prologue following them from a rival trivia team captains meet cute to a game of charades proposal, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are Max and Annie, a highly competitive married couple who, every Friday, have over their middle-class yuppie friends, married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), dimbulb Ryan (a delightful Billy Magnussen) and his latest equally air-headed lookalike blonde bimbo, for Game Night. But not, however, their passive-aggressive cop next door neighbour Gary (a creepy scene stealing Jesse Plemon) who they’ve tried to avoid since he split up with his wife, with whom they were friends.
However, on this particular night, Max is on edge because his estranged, smug and far more successful venture capitalist brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), under whose shadows he’s always lived, is in town and calling over. Indeed, it would seem that it’s the stress of trying and failing to compete with his brother that’s led Max to have a low sperm count and their inability to have kids, which is a bone of domestic contention.
Nevertheless, despite Brooks’ put downs and an embarrassing story about Max trying to fellate himself as a teenager, the evening passes off uneventfully enough. At the end, however, he says that they should come to his place the following week for what he promises will be Game Night ramped to 11 – the winner to get the keys to his classic Chevrolet Stingray, Max’s dream car and a symbol of everything he’s aspired to and never reached.
So, everyone duly turns up at Brooks’ place, Billy this time, having got the message, accompanied by intelligent and British co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan dispensing droll one-liners) as his date.
Brooks’ plan for the night is a variation on murder mystery role play, explaining that, at some point, a couple of goons will come in and kidnap one of them, the others having to piece together the clues and track them down, thereby winning the car.
And so, along comes one of the company’s actors posing as an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) to warn them there’s kidnappers in the area and provide them the game plans, shortly followed by two armed thugs bursting in and, after a fierce and realistic-looking furniture smashing fight in the kitchen, bundling off Brooks. The others are impressed. It’s only later, after the clueless Annie and Max have tracked them down and she’s somehow managed to shoot him in the arm, that they realise that it was actually for real.
Without revealing too much, suffice to say Brooks hasn’t been exactly truthful about the source of his wealth and now, if he’s not to be killed, the three couples have to find and steal a Fabergé egg from a crime boss (a cameoing Danny Huston) and deliver it to the kidnappers’ boss, the Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall). During which, Gary’s marriage mementos and fluffy white dog manage to get splattered with blood, Billy discovers his favourite urban myth is true and Kevin and Michelle become embroiled in a squabble about how one of them had sex with a celebrity.
Peppered with movie in jokes (no one can remember Ed Norton played The Hulk, Annie reprises Amanda Plummer’s gun toting scene in Pulp Fiction, a hysterical Denzel Washington gag and a running reference to Fight Club that deftly underscores that this is pretty much a comedy version of David Fincher’s The Game), the whole thing is brilliantly silly and, of course, there’s that whole mouse-trap set-up just waiting to flip the spring. Take the bait and enjoy. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Greatest Showman (12A)
Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of 19th century showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.
Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.
It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.
Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval, and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and, brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.
Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.
It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.
Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.
But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines, the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage is surely a given. (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Isle Of Dogs (PG)
Nine years on from Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop motion animation for what is arguably his most ambitious film and very definitely among his very best. Despite the certificate, this is probably not for younger audiences (especially the hand-drawn kidney transplant), aimed more at the over 10s and adults, especially those with a high level of knowledge regarding Japanese cinema and culture, influences and references being abundant. Putting the pup into puppets and bookending with Taiko drumming, Anderson offers paws for thought about such themes as friendship, prejudice, social outcasts, refugees. (“Everyone is a stray in the last analysis”), government corruption, the environment and animal cruelty all tied up in what is basically a familiar boy and his dog story.
Following a Noh-theatre like prologue detailing the war between dogs and humans in the period before the Age of Obedience, the story unfolds in a future Japan where dog flu and snout fever threaten to cross species and infect humans,. With elections looming, Kobayashi (co-screenwriter Kunichi Nomura), the tyrannical and corrupt cat-loving mayor of Megasaki, has exiled all dogs to a rubbish dump island and plans to eventually exterminate the entire species, ruthlessly disposing of Science Party political rival Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) who is seeking a cure.
However, piloting stolen plane, the mayor’s orphaned young nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), bravely comes in search of his personal bodyguard pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and joins forces with a canny canine crew comprising Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), one-time pet food commercials star King (Bob Balaban), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and, although initially reluctant, scrappy stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), in a search to find him and, ultimately, foil the mayor’s plot.
Narrated by Courtney B Vance, the voice cast that also includes Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg, a former show dog and Lauren Bacall-like romantic interest to Chief’s Humphrey Bogart, who is instrumental in prompting his eventual bond with Atari, alongside Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a human American exchange student heading up the protestors, Tilda Swinton as psychic pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel as the leader of a pack of supposedly cannibal dogs, and even Yoko Ono as a lab assistant called, er, Yoko Ono. Save for the parts translated by official news commentator Frances McDormand, the human dialogue is all in unsubtitled Japanese, although the dogs’ barks are translated to English. With a fine score by Alexander Desplat and music that also includes Prokofiev’s Troika (which Greg Lake also borrowed for I Believe in Father Christmas), it’s playful (the end credits list Anjelica Huston as Mute Poodle), waggishly witty, brilliantly animated, hugely detailed (stop-motion sushi making!), thrilling and at times very touching, this is an absolute mutts see (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (12A)
Given the current stories flying around regarding Russian meddling in the last election and Trump’s alleged indiscretions with assorted female porn stars, this has a remarkably timely resonance, although it’s set several presidencies earlier, Felt being the FBI veteran who, as ‘Deep Throat’, gave Woodward and Bernstein the goods on President Richard Nixon’s malfeasance. Based on books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, the screenplay goes behind the scenes to follow the FBI investigation and how the White House sought to shut down in the investigation into Watergate.
It stars Liam Neeson who gives a solid, complex performance as Felt, but, since he’s not killing or rescuing anyone here, the film, also which features an impressive raft of classy supporting names such as Diane Lane, Tom Sizemore, Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn, Noah Wyle and Bruce Greenwood, is getting only a single screen out of town release with zero promotion.
In the job for 30 years and now assistant FBI director, essentially running the bureau as the long standing incumbent director J Edgar Hoover has grown old and infirm, he’s summoned to the White House for advice on how the Nixon administration than remove the old man, with the virtual promise that he’ll take his place. Inflexibly loyal, he gives the short shrift, so, when, shortly after, Hoover dies of a stroke, he discovers that he’s not stepping into his shoes and, instead, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), a man with no law-enforcement experience and more susceptible to White House control, is appointed temporary director instead.
The film doesn’t shy from suggesting that Felt’s initial whistleblowing is partly down to resentment at being passed over, but his driving motivation is his sense of duty and loyalty to the organisation and his horror at seeing it being prevented from doing its job and an attempt to turn it into a White House lapdog.
As such, Neeson exudes the necessary sense of moral righteousness, even if passing confidential information for the country and the Bureau’s greater good goes against everything he believes. As such the biopic unfolds as a ticking lock political thriller, often shot in shadows with clandestine meeting, the central narrative complemented by a subplot involving Feldt’s troubled marriage and his search for their missing estranged daughter, Joan, who may have run away to become an anti-Vietnam war activist, possibly with The Weather Underground domestic terrorist movement. It’s not always subtle, but it is consistently engrossing and deserves far better than to be simply tossed away as a contractual obligation. (Showcase Walsall)
Midnight Sun (12A)
There’s not been a Nicholas Sparks adaptation for some time, but this affords a useful surrogate for those in need of a cheesy tragic teenage love story. Xeroderma pigmentosum is a rare but real immune-deficiency condition by which exposure to sunlight can be fatal, but that’s the only thing that rings remotely true in this mawkish and bland rework of a far better Japanese film, Song to the Sun.
Bella Thorne is Katie, an 18-year-old who, on account of her disease, has to spend all day in the house with its tinted glass, where her widowed father Jack (Rob Riggle) is home schooling her, only venturing out at night. Over the years, from her bedroom window, she’s watched and fallen in love with super sensitive near neighbour Charlie (Patrick Schwarzenegger), whose once promising swimming career was scuppered in a freak accident, as he skateboards past.
One evening they meet at the train station where she goes to play guitar (as you do) to the commuters and start talking, which develops into a romance. The big plot engine here being that she doesn’t tell him about her condition and he, inexplicably, never seems to wonder much why she’s never free in the day. Even at weekends. There again, he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
Dad is, of course, pleased she’s found someone, especially since, in another unlikely contrivance, Katie’s a bad case of Nobby-no mates, with only one friend, oddball but loyal Morgan (Quinn Shephard,) who pops by most days to chat, but thinks her not telling Charlie is a tad unfair. Naturally, in the film’s Cinderella midnight moment, the truth comes out and, since Katie’s fate is pretty much a given from the start, the film proceeds to load up on memorable life moments, before that poignant end credits love song strums into view
Wholesome, well-scrubbed and sanitised, existing in a world where terminal illnesses come without any pain or ugliness, it’s saccharine and banal, devoid of any genuine emotional impact and with an implausible script (at one point Charlie takes her on a surprise trip to Seattle and gets her to sing to an improbably appreciative crowd) and lifeless performances that that never rise above daytime soap level. At one point, Morgan pretty much says ‘what would Taylor Swift do. It’s that deep. (Vue Star City)
Pacific Rim Uprising (12A)
Having notched up some $400 million, it was inevitable that there’d be a sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots (Jaegers) battle giant monsters (Kaiju) movie featuring the pilots linked by, er, a neural handshake. This time round he takes the producer’s role leaving Netflix director Steven S. DeKnight to cobble the clichés into shape.
Set ten years after the original, when Idris Elba’s General Pentecost sacrificed himself to seal the breach through which the monsters were coming, we find his son Jake (John Boyega, who wasn’t in the first film), having washed out of giant-robot pilot school, making a living on the black market for stolen Jaeger parts. On his latest thieving expedition, he runs into scrappy teenage orphan urchin Amara (Cailee Spaany), who’s actually built and pilots her own mini-robot, Scrapper, the incident seeing his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offering him the chance to either go to jail or help train new Jaeger cadets for the Pan Pacific Defense Force, including Amara, This reunites him with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, also not in the first film), with whom he apparently parted on bad terms.
The film coasts along on some formula training wheels for a while before getting down the main thrust, this being the drone Jaegers being developed by Mrs. Shao (Tian Jing), head of the Shao Corporation, and her right-hand man Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day, to replace the Jaeger pilots, suddenly going rogue and revealing a link to the Kaiju, forcing the stalwart Jaegers out of dry dock to take them on, crewed by Jake, Nate and the newbies, and a race against the clock battle to prevent a gargantuan Kaiju making it to Mt. Fuji and precipitating the end of mankind.
It’s all written in broad action movie shorthand about finding your true hero, overcoming hopeless odds, bickering and bonding, etc, etc, a betrayal twist thrown in for good measure and also the return of Newton’s former lab partner Gottleib (Burn Gorman). It still comes on like a Transformers wannabe, without the transforming bit, but the cast are game enough to take it all seriously, although it has to be said Eastwood Jr has none of his dad’s screen charisma, and the huge set piece heavy metal scraps are suitably loud and kinetic. But it misses del Toro’s imagination and ability to invest depth into banality and never fails to escape the obvious influences, from Transformers to Godzilla and winds up being essentially a rehash of Independence Day: Resurgence, right down to the now we take the fight to them last line. The chances of a third incarnation of either film seeing the inside of a cinema seems highly remote. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Peter Rabbit (PG)
It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit or director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden, Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers job at Harrods, has inherited the place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.
Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).
Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several in-jokes (including a Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches) even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic swine gobbling up everything) for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Ready Player One (12A)
Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest that grips the entire world.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma city shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer homes and, via his VR headset, a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories and the trio, augmented by Japanese players Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao) as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery, both within and without the virtual reality.
An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky and, playing a key narrative function, Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Red Sparrow (15)
Based on the espionage novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews who, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Russian Sparrow Schools of the Cold War where agents were trained in the art of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets, whore-spies in essence, this reteams Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and their star Jennifer Lawrence for a spy thriller that, for all its violence, of which some is very gruesomely graphic, has more in common with the cerebral bleak and moody works of John Le Carre than the high octane Atomic Blonde.
When her glittering career as a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina is ended by on an onstage ‘accident’ that shatters a bone in her leg and having demonstrated her capacity for cold violence on those responsible, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is recruited by uncle Vanya (a suitably reptilian Matthias Schoenaerts), deputy director of external intelligence, to seduce and plant a bugged phone on a suspected official, in return for seeing that her invalid mother (Joely Richardson) continues to receive the expensive medical care she needs and they’re not evicted from their Bolshoi-owned apartment. However, when the target is then killed by a state assassin, she’s given two choices, train as a sparrow or be eliminated as a witness. Reluctantly trained under the ruthless eye of the school’s icy matron (Charlotte Rampling) to use her sexual allure and to recognise what a designated target needs to allow her to become the missing piece of his puzzle, she’s assigned by Russian general Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton in gruff mode), a CIA agent who, in the tense cross-cutting opening sequence in Gorky Park is seen distracting the cops so his high-ranking mole isn’t arrested and who, his cover blown, is subsequently confined to US soil by his bosses. However, when its learned that the mole is still operational, but won’t deal with anyone else, he’s allowed to go to Budapest and, since his presence there will be known to the Russians, await contact so he can transfer handling to another agent.
Moving into a safe house with a fellow sparrow (Thekla Reuten) who warns her to find a friend and is working her own mission, Dominika, who deliberately use her own name rather than the alias she’s been given, soon contrives for her and Nash’s paths to cross. However, since its clear from the start that both openly acknowledge that the other is a spy and what they are each after, when she agrees to work for the Americans in targeting (in the film’s London-based scenes) a US senator’s boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) who’s agreed to sell secrets, the film’s complexity lies in trying to work out who is playing who. Like Dominika, the densely layered narrative plays its cards close to its chest, wrong-footing audiences with apparent double-crosses and giving nothing away until the final moments and a flashback replay of some of her hitherto unexplained actions.
Adopting a convincing Russian accent, Lawrence’s steely, inscrutable performance that makes her character impossible to read shows why she’s arguably the finest actress of her generation, while Edgerton, Schoenaerts, Rampling, Irons and, in a cameo as the head of intelligence, Ciaran Hinds all do top shelf work.
As well as being a tense, intelligent and compelling thriller, the whole subtext of men exploiting and abusing female sexuality strikes a particularly timely note with Dominika likely to elicit a go girl reaction as she proves more than capable of her own power plays. Matthews’ novel was the first in a trilogy, so here’s hoping this sparrow takes wing again soon. (Vue Star City)
Tomb Raider (12A)
Originally played by Angelina Jolie, now Alicia Wikander takes over as video game icon Lara Croft for an origin story that, directed by the fascinatingly named Roar Uthaug, actually steals some scenes directly from the game, such as Lara vaulting a chasm with the aid of an ice-pick, and expands them into full blown action sequences. Before any of this, however, you have to sit through the set-up. Seven years after her corporate mogul father Richard’s (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara’s being urged by acting CEO Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) to sign the paper that will officially declare him dead and transfer the company and Croft manor to her.
Understandably, she’s reluctant to finally write him off, but, given she’s working as a food delivery cyclist, living in a shabby London flat and too broke to pay for her kickboxing lessons, she finally agrees. However, just before putting pen to paper, she’s fiddling with a wooden puzzle when out pops a note from dad containing cryptic clue and a key, which, in turn, leads her to discovering a hidden room in the family vault and the fact that he had a secret life as some kind of adventurer. He’s left behind a video message telling her to burn all his papers relating to Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was apparently entombed on a deserted island to save the world from her black arts. Naturally, Lara does no such thing, but, pawning the jade charm (cue unfunny cameo by Nick Frost) he gave her before he left for the last time, she sets off for Hong Kong to find the captain of the boat dad hired and eventually ends up setting sail with the man’s son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu in a largely underused, thankless role) in a search to find what happened to both their fathers and wind up shipwrecked on the lost island.
Naturally, all this entails some mysterious organisation, Trinity, which is also after the dead queen’s remains, represented here by hired gun Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), who, with his armed thugs, has pressed assorted natives into forced labour to excavate likely sites. Escaping from their clutches, it’ll be no surprise to learn who Lara runs into as the rest of the film settles down being forced into entering the tomb, navigating all its traps and learning Himiko’s true secret.
Punctuated by some schmaltzy sentimental sepia-toned childhood flashbacks to show just how much dad and daughter loved each other, and how she was determined to master bow and arrow, this is about the formative Lara, stubborn, skilled and athletic, but not yet as accomplished as she needs to be (though she can still survive a tempestuous sea, plummeting from a cliff into a raging river, crashing through trees and being knifed in the stomach) , her coming of age marked by making her first kill. Vikander does a decent job of the physical action, though the script does neither her nor the rest of the cast any favours with its nuts and bolts dialogue, but, while the set pieces are thrilling enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before, not least in the Indiana Jones series. Not a Croft Original, then. The ending naturally sets things up for the continuing Lara vs. Trinity saga, but while a sequel wouldn’t go amiss, you don’t feel any desperate need to rush for one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
Shot entirely on an iPhone (well, three of them actually), Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a smart psychological thriller that would have been considerably smarter had it not tipped its hand so early on. Claire Foy is Sawyer Valentini, a take no shit data analyst who now works in Pennsylvania having recently moved from Boston. Although she’s told no one why, the reason was because she had a stalker. Now, following a Tinder hook-up that triggers a trauma, she thinks she’s hallucinating him and takes herself along to see a counsellor at the Highland Creek therapy clinic. Having admitted that she’s sometimes had a suicidal though, she unknowingly signs up for voluntary admission and treatment. It’s supposed to be just 24 hours but her understandable response seen sees this extended to seven days and increased medication as she tries to convince the staff that she’s not mentally unstable, something the doctor and administrator are not persuaded off given that she’s accusing George (Joshua Leonard), one of the volunteer nurses on her ward, of being her stalker, Daniel, who’s followed her here.
The cops aren’t interested and when, thanks to helpful, more rational, fellow patient (Jay Pharoah) who lends Sawyer his secret phone, mom (Amy Irving) turns up she’s given the brush off and run-around, leaving promising to return with her lawyers. However, by this point, the entire Gaslighting set-up (is she imaging it or is it all real) has been brushed aside and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest has been replaced by Sleeping With The Enemy.
Even so, the film, which was largely inspired by news reports of how a chain of American psychiatric hospitals was running a scam by keeping patients unnecessarily until their insurance ran out, works efficiently enough as a trashy b-movie woman in peril thriller, Foy and Pharaoh’s solid work complemented by a suitably unhinged turn from Juno Temple as Sawyer’s bed neighbour as well as an uncredited A-list flashback cameo as Sawyer’s security assessor. It may be pushing it to tag its ‘woman’s claims disbelieved’ thread as the first psychothriller of the #MeToo era, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have you biting the nails. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (15)
Former fashion model Lorna Tucker’s documentary seeks to provide an insight on British fashion designer, punk era icon and sometime Malcolm McLaren collaborator Vivienne transformed the punk aesthetic into popular culture . A rebel in the 70s, she became a Dame in 2006, but, now 76, she remains as spiky as ever , complaining about having to go over everything again at the start of the film. The film charts her upbringing from a working-class background and art school drop out, through marriage motherhood and a stint as a schoolteacher to her affair with McLaren and rebirth and reinvention as a controversial designer.
There’s little doubt that Westwood’s notorious recalcitrance explains why several areas, especially that whole punk scene and her relationship with McLaren, are covered in so little detail and depth, but interviews with her more forthcoming second husband, Andreas Kronthaler, and he present day footage of her, still working away, cycling to her headquarters and ruthlessly self-critical of her own designs , not to mention a brief look at her environmentalist work, including her Greenpeace mission to the Arctic, still make this worth a look. (Wed: MAC)
A Wrinkle In Time (PG)
Adapted from the 1962 tween novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Selma director Ava r DuVernay’s big screen adaptation plays like a New Age trip for thirteen year olds. Four years after her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing while experimenting on bending time with something called the tesseract, science geek Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has withdrawn into herself, her grades have slipped, she’s developed an attitude and ostracised pretty much everyone at school to the extent that her super-intelligent adoptive brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her breaktimes.
Then, after the kid puts in an SOS call to the universe, into her life comes, first dippy red-head Mrs Whatsit, (Reese Witherspoon), and subsequently Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) , who speaks using famous quotations (though ranking Outkast alongside Shakespeare’s a bit much), and, towering above them in what looks like a Black Panther female warrior’s reject costume, the diva-esque Mrs Which (Opra Winfrey) who are, apparently, magical angel incarnations of the universe who have come to help Meg find her dad. So, joined by her brother and Calvin (Levi Miller), a classmate with a puppy-eyed crush, they tesser through a wrinkle in the fabric of time to another dimension with its dodgy CGI backdrops and freefloating sentient flowers where, taking to the skies as Witherspoon transforms into some sort of flying lettuce leaf, they hope to find what happened to him.
However, the reclusive resident seer (Zach Galifianakis) informs them that her father’s been taken by the It, an all consuming darkness that wants to envelop the universe. Apparently, since there’s no light in Camazotz, where It lives, although Meg’s determination is sufficient to get everyone there, the gaudily overdressed threesome can’t stay. But, before leaving each gives Meg a gift. However, once they’ve gone, the darkness attacks and, in the figure of the gaudily dressed moustachioed Red (Michael Peña) abducts and possesses Charles Wallace , so now Meg has to fight the It to rescue both him and her father and get back to Earth.
A parable about overcoming insecurities and lack of self-esteem, confronting your flaws and weaknesses (the darkness within, if you like) and being an individual, it’s heart and message are clearly in the right place, but it’s all so saccharine and twee (at times it recalls Robin Williams’ head trip through What Dreams May Come) that it feels like you’re trapped in some third rate videogame being suffocated with candyfloss and overdosing on smiles,. The dialogue is (surprisingly given the screenwriter is Frozen’s Jennifer Lee) unrelentingly cumbersome, the characters spouting huge chunks of exposition, and while Reid manages to rise above the mess to bring soulfulness to her insecurities (she finds it hard to take a compliment), everyone around her is coasting at best, Gugu Mbatha-Raw criminally wasted as Meg’s mom while Oprah Winfrey’s stellar performance in The Color Purple is now but a distant memory.
Sprawlingly uneven, almost totally devoid of tension and with none of the emotional clout you’d expect, not to mention featuring utterly unmemorable songs from Sia and Sade and some spectacularly shoddy special effects, the biggest wrinkle here is likely to be your nose at the bad smell. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, 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 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