Already recipient of Best Film and Director at the Golden Globes and nominated in both categories for the BAFTAs, the film, director Sam Mendes and DP Roger Deakins have suddenly become Oscar frontrunners for this bravura first world war drama, drawn from stories told by Mendes grandfather, about two young soldiers ordered to take a message across No Man’s Land and behind enemy lines to call of an attack that, lured into a German trap, can only end in disaster.
It’s been misleadingly touted as being one continuous take, whereas it’s actually a series of very lengthy takes (some shot up to eight times to get it right), seamlessly edited together as a fluid travelling narrative. Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are woken from their peaceful naps and given the task by their General (Colin Firth) to deliver the order to stand down to Colonel Mackenzie (Benjamin Cumberbatch), the officer in charge, who, believing the Germans are on the retreat, intends to launch an assault, unaware of reconnaissance information revealing a new enemy line manned by heavy artillery. If not prevented, it will result in the massacre of the 1,600 men in his division, among them Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden). And they only have until the following morning to do so. To get there involves them crossing a devastated landscape of mud and ruined buildings, strewn with corpses of men and horses, infested with rats, tangled in barbed wire, littered with fallen trees and pitted with shell craters, never quite sure as to whether the Germans have all left or not. And much of it must be undertaken in daylight.
At times unbearably tense and punctuated with sudden jolting moments, it grips throughout as the friends navigate through the exposed countryside and booby trapped abandoned enemy trenches (far better equipped than their own, with even the rats bigger), the camera sometimes following, sometimes in front of them, sometimes panning across the horrors that surround them. Without spoiling it too much, suffice to say that, following a remarkable and agonising scene involving a crashed German plane, ultimately, only one of them makes it to Mackenzie, the perilous trek seeing him shot at by snipers, finding a brief moment of calm with a young Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq) and a motherless baby (one of several almost surreal moments, another involving cherry trees), having to confront stray enemy soldiers, being swept along in a raging river and racing across a battlefield under bombardment.
In the early part, it’s almost a two-hander between MacKay and Chapman, the film drawing you into their friendship and fears, but as the journey progresses there are several brief cameos, among them Mark Strong as an officer en route with his men to the bombed out village of Écoust, a staging point on the vital mission, that gives way to the surviving messenger stumbling out into night-time vision of hell.
Driven by a swelling score from Thomas Newman, it never trumpets anything resembling glory in wartime (at one point an officer sarcastically observes “Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow”) and its heroism is very much that of the courage of ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances, and wishing they were anywhere else. Calling to mind other such war classics as Paths of Glory, War Horse and Saving Private Ryan, it’s poignant (most especially the still scene of a lone soldier singing Wayfaring Stranger to his comrades before they go into battle), tragic, thrilling and horrifying all at the same time, the human waste and needless destruction part of the fabric rather than a pointed agenda. Simply breathtakingly brilliant. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (15)
Sharing a title but otherwise nothing to do with Eugene O’Neil’s play (it more accurately translates as to Last Evenings on Earth, from the book by Roberto Bolano), Chinese director Bi Gan’s languorous neo-noir sophomore feature evokes both Wong Kar Wai and Andrei Tarkovsky in its dreamy, otherworldly expressionistic nature, expanding on his 40-minute long take in Kaili Blues with, around the 75-minute mark and introduced by a title card, an uninterrupted near hour-long second act nighttime dream sequence shot (but not screened here) in 3D by David Chizallet as the central character dons a pair of 3D glasses in a shabby cinema and falls asleep while watching a film.
The character in question is Luo Hongwa (Huang Jue), a troubled tough guy loner who has returned to his hometown of Kaili in search of long lost love Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), wandering the streets and reminiscing via contemplative voiceovers as the film flashes back to the start of the doomed affair in 2000, the subsequent murder of restaurant owner friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi), his body wheeled into a shaft on a cart, and a confrontation with Wan’s gangster boyfriend Zuo Hongyuan (Chen Yongzhong). His search leads him to a woman’s prison, where he learns of a green book of folk tales that Wan stole which contains a flying charm and a spell to make a house spin round. But the passing of time has rendered fragmented memories that never quite coalesce (“Are they real or not?” he pointedly wonders) and, opening in a cave, in the audacious extended second act Bi tracks him through a Kafkaesque labyrinth of ruined buildings, corridors, rooms and alleyways as the echoes of the past (broken clocks and watches are recurring motifs, as is water) swirl around as the elliptic storylines introduces a younger version of Wildcat (Luo Feiyang), a variation on Wan Quiwen and two different characters played by Sylvia Chang, the camera sometimes pausing for lengthy periods such as, for example, a shot of someone eating an entire apple.
Visually intoxicating if wilfully opaque, the film exercises a narcotic, hypnotic and poetic allure as the minimal narrative (apparently inspired by Double Indemnity) weaves in and out of the conscious and subconscious, of disconnected melancholic memories, variously involving a game of ping-pong, a scooter ride, a zip-line into the town and roughing up a couple of teenage thugs threatening Kaizhen (Tang), the female manager of a pool hall. More an experience than a cohesive story, just surrender to its allure and go with the flow. (MAC)
Buried away on three out of town screens, British stage director Benedict Andrews details how Jean Seberg, the American actress and activist who became an icon of the French New Wave, had her life and career derailed by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program under the guidance of J. Edgar Hoover, when, coming to Hollywood in the late 60s to make Paint Your Wagon, she was targeted for her support of the Black Panther movement and variously harassed, intimidated and spied on, with damaging rumours about her personal (she had an adulterous affair with and was allegedly made pregnant by Black Panther activist Hakim Abdullah Jamal, played by Anthony Mackie) and political life, ultimately leading to several suicide attempts, culminating in her death in 1979 (although only noted here in the end titles). As Seberg, Kristen Stewart’s performance has been critically applauded, but the film itself, in which veteran bigot Vince Vaughn and sympathetic rookie Jack O’Connell play the FBI agents assigned to the case, has been dismissed as generically proficient but prosaic and with blunt dialogue, offering only superficial insight into its subject, it’s powerful last act bringing things together too late to save the film. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Blue Story (15)
An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (BAFTA Rising Star nominee Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.
Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Pussywhipped by the critics, while not purrfect, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical is far better than reviews would suggest and has now been given some emergency surgery to improve the CGI effects so the ats look less weird. Drawing on TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it centres around a tribe of cats (the Jellicles, a breed of felines though the terms is never explained here) as they gather for the annual Jellicle Ball, the night one will be chosen by the aged Old Deutronomy (gender spin casting with Judi Dench, who appeared in the original stage musical as Grizabella, giving the finale here an extra resonance) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. However, in this reworked narrative, Macavity (Idris Elba), the disreputable master criminal with magical powers, is determined to be the chosen one and proceeds to remove other contenders and those who might thwart his plans from the scene. These include aged theatre cat Gus (Ian McKellan), railway cat fat cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae giving a tap dance showcase), fat cat Bustaphor Jones (James Cordon) and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, Dench again doubling up roles in the original production) aka the Old Gumbie Cat who rules the mice and cockroaches (some of which she eats in the middle of their Busby Berkeley-style dance routine).
Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesa Hwayard stars as Victoria, the abandoned cat taken in by the Jellicles who proves instrumental in the final choice, while the cast also features Jason Derulo as glam tomcat Rum Tum Tugger, Laurie Davidson as tuxedo-sporting magician Mister Mistoffelees, Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, Old Deuteronomy’s second in command who serves as the narrator, Ray Winstone as Macavity’s accomplice Growltiger holding his captives on a barge on the Thames and Naoimh Morgan and Danny Collins as mischief makers Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie. Plus, of course, Taylor Swift as the red queen Bombalurina and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, the former glamour cat who has fallen on hard times and been ostracised by the Jellicles. Pretty much all of the above get their own spotlight moments amid the ensemble production numbers, Swift’s Macavity: The Mystery Cat and Dench’s finale of The Ad-Dressing of Cats both strong, although the standouts are unquestionably Hayward’s Beautiful Ghosts, the sole new song, and Hudson’s two emotionally shattering renditions of Memories, the show’s best known number.
The often balletic choreography is top notch throughout and both the leads and the ensemble cast, given digital fur and whiskers, are terrific, while there’s some playful notes in the background such as a cinema playing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and the theatre with The Mousetrap. On the downside, however, Hayward sports a wide-eyed innocence look for the entire film and the scale is haphazard to say the least with the cats sometimes framed as human size and at others far too diminutive against the props. The melancholic Memories aside, what it lacks, of course, are the sort of crowd pleasing songs that fuelled The Greatest Showman, and, as such, it sometimes lacks the necessary propulsive energy to move things along, but, while clearly aimed at fans of the stage phenomenon and musicals in general, while you may not come away beaming like the cat who got the cream, you’ll likely still be feline fine. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Frozen II (U)
Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached, now rules Arendell, snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), tell them a bedtime story about Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.
Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit featuring a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.
The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire. The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end, someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Gentlemen (18)
Having played nice for the family with the live action Aladdin, Guy Ritchie returns to his Lock Stock mockney roots for a swaggeringly stylised and convolutedly plotted London gangster action comedy with a surprisingly low body count but a through the roof tally of four letter expletives, mostly C bombs.
It’s largely told in flashback via a duologue between sleazy, goateed and camp tabloid private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant on top form, relishing the irony) and the softly spoken Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) as he offers to bury all the damning evidence he’s acquired for an expose of his Oxford educated, marijuana magnate American boss, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey in smirk mode), for £20 million. The basic plot is that, looking to retire, Mickey wants to sell his business (a nationwide empire built through deals with financially impoverished British aristocrats to use their estates as cannabis farms) to well-connected would-be buyer, Jewish-American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) for£400 million. But ambitious Chinese rival Dry Eye (Henry Golding) wants to take control and, as such, the narrative power play jockeys back and forth across assorted time jumps for a steady stream of new twists, revelations, misdirections, double crosses and set-ups, with a colourful cast of characters that include junkies, assorted musclemen, a rapping crew of boxers, Chinese drug lords, teenage thugs with cameraphones and Russians with Eddie Marsan as the newspaper editor with a personal vendetta against Mickey, Colin Farrell in a plaid tracksuit as the handy with his fists Irish club boxing coach and Michelle Dockery as Rosalind, Mickey’s Essex ice queen who runs a chop shop business.
Ritchie packs it full of self-referential film jokes, from Fletcher pitching his story as a screenplay for a movie called Bush shot old school on 35mm to allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and London gangster classic, The Long Good Friday as well as a poster for Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on an office wall inside Miramax, the film’s distributor. It rattles anecdotedly along, constantly shooting off knowing witticisms and mannered dialogue, backdropped in Tarantino fashion by a cool soundtrack. “If you wish to be the king of the jungle, it’s not enough to act like the king, you must be the king”, observes McConaughey. Ritchie has come back for the crown. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Jojo Rabbit (12A)
Making a satirical comedy about Nazi Germany isn’t easy, Chaplin pulled it off with The Great Dictator as did Mel Brooks in The Producers, whereas, Oscars notwithstanding, Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful was squirm-inducing schmaltz. Now, following up on Thor:Ragnorak, writer-director Taika Watiti throws his hat into the Third Reich ring and, taking from Christine Leunens’s decidedly serious novel Caging Skies, comes up trumps with an audaciously absurd coming of age tale of a young member of the Hitler Youth whose imaginary friend is none other than Adolf himself.
Set in a small German town in the last year of the war, ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (winning newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), so nicknamed because he wouldn’t bring himself to bill a bunny during a youth camp exercise, really wants to be an exemplary fascist but, despite encouragement from his petulant fantasy Führer (cartoonishly played with relish by Watiti channelling Michael Palin with a stream of hipster anachronisms) whenever he needs counselling, when it comes down to the wire, his heart’s just not in it. An unfortunate face-scarring accident with a grenade and at the insistence of his mother Rosie (nicely underplayed BAFTA nominee Scarlett Johannsen), means he now relegated to carrying out postman duties for the swaggering one-eyed gay squad commander, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) whose psychotic underlings include Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen, while his bespectacled chubby best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) gets to play proper soldiers.
Humiliation, however, soon becomes the least of his worries as the film takes a turn into Anne Frank territory when he discovers his mother, who’s less a fan of the Fatherland than he is, is hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie, the film’s calm, measured centre), a Jewish girl, in a secret compartment in their attic. When she warns that turning her in will mean both her and his mother’s death, instead he decides to hang out and learn more about Jews from the source, compiling a notebook and sketches to answer such pressing questions as “Where does the queen Jew lay the eggs?” Inevitably, a friendship begins to form as she tells him he’s not a Nazi, just “a 10-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform” and he comes to understand the lies he’s been fed (Jews have scales and horns) and the suffering that’s been inflicted.
Opening with documentary clips of World War II Germany accompanied by the Beatles’ German-language version of I Want to Hold Your Hand (Bowie’s Helden also features), at times calling to mind Wes Anderson, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, Watiti underscores his ridiculing of anti-Semitism through absurdist off-beat humour while playing the film’s Nazis, as epitomised by Klenzendorf, as buffoons, although he does upend the caricature and clowning with sympathy in unexpected ways. Which isn’t to say, there isn’t also an air of chilling threat, manifested in the parodic portrayal of the black clad Sieg Heiling Gestapo (headed up by an unctuous Stephen Merchant) who descend on Jojo’ house while, pivoting on a pair of shoes, things suddenly switch from hilarity to gut punch horror as the tone shifts in a heartbeat.
Clearly designed to strike a timely chord with the disturbing rise of neo-Nazism, it’s a provocative anti-hate dark satire with heart, humanity, hilarity and, in its moving final moments, hope. Not to mention an hysterical German Shepherd gag. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Jumanji: The Next Level (12A)
The gang’s all back when, set some time after the last film, they get together to celebrate Bethany’s (Madison Iseman’s) return from her study abroad and Spencer (Alex Wolff) never shows. Going to his uncle’s house, they discover he’s gone back into Jumanji and decide to follow and rescue him. The drums start pounding, but this time their avatars get all mixed up. Insecure Martha (Morgan Turner), whose relationship with Spencer has hit a speed bump, is still Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but high school sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now zoologist Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and, instead of Spencer, Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is now his infirm cranky uncle Eddie (Danny DeVito) whose estranged best friend and former restauirant partner Milo (Danny Glover) is backpack man Mouse (Kevin Hart). And Bethany’s not there at all.
Greeted as before by game host Nigel (Rhys Darby), they learn that this time they have to save Jumanji from Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McGann), a warlord who killed Bravestone’s parents and has stolen a precious stone, and unless it is again exposed to the sun, Jumanji and its people are doomed.
In many ways this serves up much the same as before with the cast sending themselves up (such as Bravestone’s habit of breaking out into smouldering intensity), but now Johnson and Hart also get to channel DeVito and Glover who are delighted at the new lease of life (and, for the former, sexy lover) their avatars have given them.
Again directed by Jake Kasden, it romps along through a series of set pieces, including a floating rope bridges encounter with a horde of angry mandrills and a desert chase pursued by a flock of ostriches before they arrive at Jurgen’s fortress, all down to their last life, during which further amusing avatar swaps occur (notably between Ruby and Sheldon), including the introduction of lockpicking Ming (Awkafeena), a whole new character, and Bethany finally puts in a very unexpected appearance along with Alex (Colin Hanks), the man they rescued last time round.
It takes a while to find its feet and it can be a bit shouty (Black, naturally), but once in the swing it romps along in hugely entertaining fashion and make sure you hang around for when, having all declared they’ll never go back, a mid-credits scene suggests that, for the next sequel, they won’t have to. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Knives Out (12A)
In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, BAFTA Best Screenplay nominee writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.
The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.
The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.
Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a private detective who’s been hired by a mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them, appears to have any real concern.
It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”
Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Little Women (U)
Louis May Allcott’s evergreen 19th century novel gets another rework as a coming of age dramady at the hands of Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig (BAFTA nominated for Adapated Screenplay but snubbed as director). Set during and after the American Civil War, it tells of the four March sisters, the eldest, family beauty Meg (Emma Watson), independent-minded aspiring writer Jo (BAFTA Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan), petulant Amy (BAFTA Supporting Actress nominee Florence Pugh) and piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they search to find their identities. Here, Jo is already tutoring in New York and working on becoming an author, hot-headed Amy is in Paris studying painting and acting as companion to her cantankerous, imperious spinster aunt (Meryl Streep) who’s attempting to steer her into the marriage market, Meg has given up acting ambitions and is married to impoverished schoolteacher John Brooke (James Norton) with two kids, and Beth, the youngest, well, she’s the sickly tragic one. Laura Dern is quietly excellent as their mother, Marmie, trying to cope in reduced circumstances with her abolitionist husband (Bob Odenkirk) away at war serving as a chaplain, and Timothee Chalamet (who starred with Ronan in Lady Bird) is puckish, childhood friend Laurie who, living a dissolute life having fled to Europe heartbroken when Jo rejected his proposal, may well still be a flame in Amy’s heart, except, of course, she’s resentful of being second best to Jo. Meanwhile, Friedrich Bhaer, the German academic and Jo’s fatherly mentor in has been reinvented as a considerably younger French language professor romantic interest (Louis Garrel), although his forthright opinions on her work don’t get things off to a promising start, while Chris Cooper is perfectly cast as the family neighbour, Laurie’s grandfather, who takes a fatherly interest in Beth.
Its feminist note is struck early one as Jo negotiates the anonymous publication of one of her – or rather’ ‘a friend’s’ stories with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), editor of the Weekly Volcano, who advises that, if she has a heroine then she has to be married at the end, or dead, opting to retain her own copyright and haggling over the fee. The film’s title, of course, refers to the quasi autobiographical novel about her and her family’s life, one of sibling rivalry (including a particularly vindictive act by Amy) and romantic and health crises, and the scene of Jo watching it being assembled and printed is a wonderful reminder of an almost lost art.
It’s all a bit overly busy early on and the constant switching between past and present can prove confusing, but it eventually settles down, it looks terrific, the performances are uniformly excellent, with Ronan and Pugh especially brilliant, and staying true to the book’s knowing compromise of a happy ending while simultaneously celebrating female empowerment this is destined to become a modern classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Playing With Fire (PG)
An inane knockabout comedy in which a bunch of machismo California smoke jumpers – firefighters who parachute into wildfires – headed up by no-nonsense Station Superintendent Jake (John Cena), whose legendary dad died in the line of duty, find themselves saddled with three kids, sarcastic teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), hyperactive Will (Christian Convery) and annoying poppet Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), for the weekend when they rescue them from a blazing cabin where they’re home alone with their parents they say, off celebrating an anniversary. The two youngsters are, naturally, uncontrollable and cause all sorts of mayhem at the woodland firehouse, which is a bit of a problem since, not only has half of his crew just quit, but Jake needs to impress the retiring Commander (Dennis Haysbert) so he can take over, but, equally naturally, the crew (which includes Keegan-Michael Kay, John Leguizamo and Tyler Mane as a character called Axe because he’s always carrying a, well, axe and who never speaks until he bursts into song) end up bonding with them. Which, of course, is when Child Services come along. With Judy Greer in the thankless role of the romantic interest biologist studying toads by the lake, it’s essentially an excruciatingly unfunny excuse to cover its shamlessly mugging stars in assorted substances and fluids, have Cena fall over a lot and for him and Kay to be subjected to a gross fart gag. It never fizzles let alone catches fire. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Spies In Disguise (PG)
Very loosely inspired by the animated short Pigeon:Impossible, the latest from Blue Sky studios is a sort of mismatched buddy Bond parody (Life And Let Fly perhaps) featuring the voice of Will Smith as suave but preeingly egocentric, tuxedo sporting superspy Lance Sterling who, when he’s framed for the theft of some atomic weapon, turns to Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), the agency’s nerdy gadget guy he recently fired, to help him literally disappear for a while using his newly developed “biodynamic concealment”. Unfortunately, he accidentally drinks the trial potion (created using a feather from Walter’s pet, Lovie) and is, to his ever-complaining horror, transformed into a blue pigeon, albeit still capable of human speech. So, with Marcy (Rashida Jones) and her Internal Affairs agents looking to bring him in, he’s forced to reluctantly team up with Walter (who favours using kindness and peaceful means, like silly string and serotonin inducing Kitty Glitter rather than explosives to defeat the bad guys) to go after Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) who has a robot hand and hundreds of weaponised drones which, once he’s stolen a top secret database, he intends to use to wipe out Sterling’s fellow spies.
The tired and thin world domination one joke plot rattles relentlessly along in hyperactive, noisy and repetitive manner as it romps from Japan and Washington to Mexico, the North Sea and Venice, devoid of much by way of more than formulaic physical comedy and tired wisecracks, but adding a few extra birds along the way as Lance gets to learn about teamwork rather than flying solo and Walter realises being weird is okay.
Any film that relies on gluten free breadcrumbs to help overpower the villain can’t be all bad, and there are some fun moments, but it feels like it was rushed before the screenplay was really ready and wastes the likes of DJ Khaled and Karen Gillan and in undeveloped roles like Marcy’s assistants Ears and Eyes. And, as Lance discovers numbers one and two involve the same orifice, I don’t envy parents having to explain to curious tots what a cloaca is. At one point Lance lays an egg. The film pretty much does the same. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)
Forty-two years after the saga began, JJ Abrams finally brings it to a close (that is save for the assorted spin-offs) with a finale that is both exhilarating and, at times, nigh incoherent in a sprawling narrative basically themed around questions of identity. Luke having been absorbed into the force in The Last Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley, finally finding some charisma) is still doing her Jedi training while, having offed his dad in The Force Awakens, conflicted First Order commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has forged a new alliance with the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who, despite being killed off in Episode III, is back and planning to wipe out all resistance and launch the Final Order, he just needs Ren to dispose of Rey. For a good two-thirds of the two hour plus running time, the overly busy plot races from one episode to the next and, while it looks visually stunning and the action sequences are thrilling, it’s not until the final stretch that the narrative coheres with some sort of clear purpose as they planet hop in search of some crystal that will lead them to Exogol, the hidden land of the Siths, and attempt to translate vital clue inscribed in Sith runes on a dagger which C-3PO is programmed not to translate.
Along the way, not only does Palpatine return from the dead, but there’s a couple of other significant cameos from hitherto deceased characters, along with the return to the saga for the first time since Return of the Jedi by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), not to mention voice cameos from the likes of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader while the late Carrie Fisher appears as Leia courtesy of some clever archive footage manipulation. And, in keeping with past revelations about family blood lines, there’s another biggie of Luke/Vader proportions thrown in here too with flashbacks to the fate of Rey’s parents. Redemption, sacrifice, embracing/becoming one with the Force and a variety of character twists all pile up to give fanboys a massive Christmas present while also finding room to throw in new characters such as Richard E. Grant’s First Order general and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) as another First Order deserter, a conscript who refused to carry out a massacre, alongside the return of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and Finn (John Boyega), who never does seem to get to tell Rey what he wanted to when he thought they were about to die.
The set pieces are awesome, most notably the final battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire’s fleet and a light sabre duel between Rey and Ren atop the remnants of a rusting, corroded hulk surrounded by towering waves while the last scene between the two of them and the coda manage to elicit an emotion that always eluded George Lucas, the final two words likely to have those who’ve taken the same journey erupt into floods of tears. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Screenings courtesy of Odeon and Cineworld
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316
Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000
Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240