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

 

NEW RELEASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Collateral Beauty (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monster Trucks (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

Why Him? (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

NOW PLAYING

Arrival (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ballerina (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bleed For This (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Doctor Strange (12A)

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

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

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

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

The Eagle Huntress (U)

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

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

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

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moana (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Office Christmas Party (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Passengers (12A)

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

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

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

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

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trolls (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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