MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 24-Thu Nov 30

NEW RELEASES

Battle of the Sexes (12A)

The second real life tennis showdown story this year, pitching Steve Carrell and Emma Stone on opposite sides of the net, this doesn’t have the same on court dynamic and Bjorg vs McEnroe. But, then, as the title suggests, this isn’t really about tennis. In 1973, extrovert and egotistical 55-year-old Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Carrell) challenged 29-year-old ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Stone) to an exhibition match to prove men were superior to women on the court. This had its genesis in King and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discovering that the cash prize for male players in an upcoming tournament was  eight times that for women and confronting the United States Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (a suitably smarmy Bill Pullman) demanding parity. When he refused, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, recruiting some of the best female players  who famously signed up  for  one dollar contracts, with Heldman succeeding in bringing tobacco company Virginia Slims onboard as the WTA sponsors.

Helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, shot on 35mm it perfectly recreates its 70s setting and plays for laughs in the misogynistic  Riggs’ goading King into accepting his $100,000 challenge (prior to which he took on and defeated then No 1, Margaret Court) with his photo opportunity stunts and provocative comments such as women being allowed on to the courts, because who else would pick up the balls. Declaring that he was putting the show back into chauvinism, he even adopted a pet piglet. Finally, after initially rejecting his offer, it all became too much for King to let go unchallenged and she agreed to meet him on court, going on, as history records, to eventually beat him in a  nail-biting 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 match watched by 90 million viewers worldwide upon which rested all and any hope of women’s tennis being taken seriously.

As with Bjorg vs McEnroe, this also has a story away from the court. Riggs, a compulsive gambler is caught in a collapsing emasculating marriage to wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and stuck in a boring nine to five, the match his way of putting himself back in the spotlight. Kicked out of the family home, he moves in with his older son, Larry (Pullman’s son, Lewis), whom he enlists as his somewhat embarrassed assistant.

Meanwhile, King is struggling with her sexuality as, although married to the hunky and supportive dreamboat Larry (Austin Stowell) who also acts as her coach, manager and trainer, she’s become attracted to and is having a sensitively depicted affair with L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a sweet and nicely underplayed Andrea Riseborough) who becomes the team’s official hair stylist. Given the period (not that much has changed since) King cannot come out as gay as it would effectively destroy her career, but at least, when he finds out, Larry is remarkably understanding. Her closeted sexuality is offset here by Alan Cummings’ as the team’s decidedly camp fashion designer whose asides about the difficulties of being gay reinforce the film’s subplot.

At over two hours, it’s somewhat overlong and, as I say, when they finally start to serve, the match lacks the energy of its predecessor. However, it’s the verbal volleys that propel the film, while the lead performances, Carrel going for broke with Riggs’ outlandish behaviour masking the internalised insecurity and fear and Stone a reined in turmoil of complex and conflicting emotions, are first class, with them both perfectly capturing the character’s physical tics and mannerisms, Carrel even recreating Riggs’ famous nude photo with a symbolically placed tennis racquet.

In addition to the obvious theme about sexism, in life in general as well as in sport, the battle between a larger than life showoff and a woman determined to succeed in a man’s world can’t fail to have political resonances, but, ultimately, that’s just icing on the cake of  this hugely entertaining and, unfortunately, still highly relevant story of lobbing one through the glass ceiling. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Daddy’s Home 2  (12A)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return as chalk and cheese dads, milksop manchild Brad Whitaker and cool  Dusty Mayron, the ex-husband of Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) and now married to model cum novelist  Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As well as Sara and Brad having their own toddler, he’s also stepdad to Dusty’s two kids, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Adrianna (Didi Costine), while Dusty’s stepdad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Karen’s daughter by her ex, Roger (John Cena).

Brad and Dusty are now best friends and with the festive season approaching they decide that, rather than the kids shuffling between two homes, this year they’ll have a ‘together Christmas’. Things immediately go awry when Dusty learns that his womanising, judgemental absent father, ex-astronaut airline pilot Kurt (Mel Gibson), is descending on them. As is Brad’s equally soppy huggy, kissy dad, Don (John Lithgow), albeit mysteriously without mom.  Rather inevitably, the overbearing bullying Kurt doesn’t take to Brad’s meek manner and is forever taking a  pop at Dusty, and when he decides to relocate both families to an expensive ski lodge for Christmas, the daddyships are pushed to breaking point all the way round. Especially when Roger turns up.

Overstuffed with clumsily contrived subplots (among them Dylan’s first crush, Megan’s resentment-fuelled meanness, Karen’s shoplifting, Don’s marriage and aspiring new career in improv,  an obligatory talent show and even a hunting scene), its male friendship framework does have some amusing moments and a couple of inspired slapstick destruction scenes (notably a string of Christmas lights being hoovered up by a snowblower), but these are more than counteracted by the ridiculous childish behaviour between Brad and Don, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in unfunny unmanly silliness, Ferrell’s overly familiar and increasingly insufferable buffoonery at its laziest.

Gibson is easily the best thing here, even if his sarcastic, sour gruffness seems to be part of another funnier and better film entirely, everything else following a strictly formulaic falling-out and making-up pattern with a message about not repressing your feelings. With the big finale involving everyone being snowed in at a Showcase cinema for Christmas Day (the staff implausibly  handing out free food) there’s an amusing voiceover from Liam Neeson in a pastiche of one of his Taken-style movies and a cheesily sentimental but nevertheless touching everyone back together singalong to Do They Know It’s Christmas? But any last minute goodwill is soon blown by the airport farewells coda and wholly redundant cameo (what’s the point of having a guest celeb if you then have to explain who he is). It’s inoffensive enough family friendly festive fodder, but the Christmas cheer has a hollow ring. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Star (U)

An animated (as in technique rather than style) retelling of the Nativity story from the perspective of the animals, the camels complaining about the three kings’ poor sense of direction and a donkey (Steven Yeun), goat and dove looking to head off King Herod’s (Christopher Plummer) bloodthirsty dogs and warn Joseph and Mary, this is well-intentioned but never really manages to balance the reverence for  the story with the silliness of the comedy.

There are some amusing touches for the grown ups, such as a caption that reads “Nazareth 9 months B.C.” not to mention  the in-joke that Mary is aptly voiced by Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin and the kids will enjoy the cute animal antics, but, ultimately, it’s all rather generic and nondescript, regularly punctuated by anachronistic contemporary dialogue (in American accents, of course) with Mariah Carey providing the theme song. For those of the faith, it’s an innocuous way of introducing the kids to the Bible story  and is, of course far more about the real meaning of Christmas than Bad Moms. For everyone else, this doesn’t twinkle.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Suburbicon   (15)

For his sixth film as director, George Clooney  returns to the 50s America setting of Good Night and Good Luck but with far fewer dividends in this clunky satire resurrected and rewritten from an unproduced Coen Brothers script that, ironically, feels like a poor Coens film noir pastiche, Fargo a particularly obvious touchstone.

Set in an idyllic American community in 1959, it stars a miscast Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a local financial executive who conspires with his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore) to murder her twin sister, his wheelchair-bound wife Rose , and claim the insurance money. To which end, he hires a couple of thugs (Glenn Flesher, Alex Hassell) to dstage a break-in, tie up the family and  chloroform them, his young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) waking up to be  told that’s mom’s dead. Before long, Margaret  moves in and naturally, things don’t subsequently go smoothly, a smarmy and suspicious claims investigator (Oscar Isaac) turns up with blackmail on his mind and the two thugs set out to remove any incriminating evidence as, like Macbeth, Gardner soon discovers that one murder often leads to more. Meanwhile Nicky’s starting to suspect there’s something going on between his aunt and dad, especially when, at an identity parade, they don’t point out the men and he walks in on the two of them engaged in some S&M hanky panky and turns to his blustery Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) for help.

Set alongside all this, there’s a subplot about new neighbours, the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke), Suburbicon’s first Negro  family, who, although Nicky strike sup a friendship with the son, are quickly subjected to all manner of racism and harassment from the scandalized community, although, despite the thematic link,  this seems to be part of a different film entirely and is actually based on real life experience of a coloured family in Levittown, Pernnsylvania, during the same period.

Damon inevitably calls to mind William H. Macy’s far better performance in Fargo while Moore is all sub-par Hitchcock femme fatale, only Jupe and, in his all too brief appearance, Davis making any real impression. Tonally uneven and bitty, the tension contrived and forced, Gardner’s schemes unravelling along with the film’s  grip on the audience, it may look good but its portrait of the darkness behind the facade of the cookie cutter American Dream is painted in drably uninteresting and muddled colours. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

The seasonal  reuniion of the main cast of the original movie swaps a sharp satire on peer pressure and social snobbery among middle class school moms for a sometimes funny but generally lazy and conventional rehash of  the well-worn theme of  daughters and their overbearing, domineering mothers.

Opening amid the debris of a domestic festive apocalypse, Amy (Mila Kunis) proceeds to relate events leading up to this, all beginning with her and her best friends, mousy Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the highly sexualised Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all being confronted with their overbearing mothers, respectively control freak Ruth (Christine Baranski), clingy, needy guilt tripping Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the long absent, unreliable and feckless Isis (Susan Sarandon) all  turning up for Christmas. Ruth immediately takes over, dismissing Amy’s wish for a  mellow Christmas with her single father  boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez), Sandy, who has had a jumper made with her daughter’s face on it, announces she’s moving in next door so they can be closer, and Isis, who drives a huge truck and sports cowboy gear, wants to tap up Carla for money.

Over a drinks-fuelled trip to the Mall, the girls decide to take back Christmas, with chaos and confrontations inevitably ensuing. Somewhere among all this, Carla also strikes up a flirtation with hugely well-endowed male stripper Ty (Justin Hartley) who, in town for a Sexy Santa contest, comes to her spa to have his balls waxed.  Which is pretty much the level on which this operates throughout with its erection and vagina jokes and mining laughs with Jessie’s young daughter saying “oh my fucking God” several times.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the six actresses performances, Sarandon  lighting up the screen with her sass and Baranski delivering caustic one-liners with relish, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and sharp observations,  but there’s also a contrived feeling to the outrageousness here, a sense of going through the motions rather than the liberation of the original, while the sentimental finale as Amy and Ruth resolve their problems and bond is touching but unearned. Fun but disappointing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

Thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s iconic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, director Denis Villeneuve, DoP Roger Deakin and screenwriters Michael Green and  Hampton Fancher (the latter co-wrote the original), deliver a  haunting sequel which, set thirty years on in an forbidding LA some years after the Black Out that wiped all digital records and where it’s  always snowing or raining, both honours Scott’s vision and deepens its meditation on the nature of the soul.

Following the collapse of the Tyrell Corporation as a result of replicant rebellions, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) rose to power after his synthetic agriculture saved the world from famine, acquiring the remnants of Tyrell and producing a new model of replicants, with a  shorter life span.

However, there are still some extended life Nexus 8 models out there and it’s the task of LAPD replicants such as K (Ryan Gosling)  to track down these ;skin jobs’ and ‘retire’ them. His latest mission brings him to one of Wallace’s old farming facilities and Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) who, after a bone crunching fight, he eventually shoots. However, in scouting the area a box is discovered buried beneath a tree, in it a box of bones and, carved nearby, a date. The bones turn out to be that of a woman, a replicant, but the staggering revelation is that she died giving birth, apparently to twins and that, while the girl died,  the boy, who would now be thirty, is still out there. As such, Lieutenant Joshi (an imposingly severe Robin Wright), K’s boss, orders him to find and eliminate the last remaining evidence so as to prevent the revolution that would surely ensue should such knowledge about the ability to reproduce become known and the fragile balance between the controlling humans and the ‘submissive’  replicants be overthrown.

As to the date, this resonates with a childhood memory K has about being chased by some other kids and hiding his wooden carving of a horse in an  abandoned furnace, the date being carved on the base of the toy. Thoughts of Pinocchio are not without foundation.

Meanwhile, he’s not the only one with an interest in the case, Wallace having despatched his cold and lethal replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, mesmerising) to acquire the evidence and to find the child. All of which leads K, first to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juni) who, forever trapped inside an hermetically sealed environment on account of her weak immune system, crafts memories for Wallace’s replicants and assures K that his is real not an implant. And from there, accompanied by his hologram girlfriend Joi (a terrific Ana de Armas), essentially a souped up and sexy version of Siri, in search of Rick Deckard (a pleasingly gruff Harrison Ford), the long missing former Blade Runner, whom, it would seem, may have the connections and answers K is seeking.

It would be unfair to reveal much more of the plot, but suffice to say there’s a clever narrative sleight of hand designed to have audiences jumping to conclusions while, through cues such as Joi’s boot up melody, a snatch from Peter and the Wolf,  the film cleverly weaves in notions of simulation and questions of what is real or just seems to be.

Visually it is an astonishing piece of work with inspired use of light and outstanding set design and CGI that include an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Las Vegas with a casino and holograms of Elvis and Sinatra, Wallace’s impressive but soulless headquarters,  the sometimes transparent Joi’s transformations of appearance (in a remarkable ménage a trois she merges with a replicant sex worker to make love to K) and the few but riveting action sequences.

The performances are suitably dialled down and reined in, giving rise to many a moody inscrutable Gosling stare and the film often uses silence for effect, building both the emotional intensity and the suspense. On the other hand, the soundtrack can also be brutally extreme, Not all of it is clear, and intentionally so, though Wallace’s motives and plans are, perhaps, a little too obscure, but that is part and parcel of its allure – and the reason you’ll need to see it more and, while you don’t necessarily have to have seen Scott’s film, those who have will relish a startling final act nod to one of that film’s pivotal moments. At 164 minutes, it’s a touch overlong and it’s certainly not some popcorn sci fi, but, as with Villeneuve’s Arrival, it assumes an intelligence in its audience that Hollywood far too often assumes to be absent. (Vue Star City)

Call Me By Your Name (15) 

Arriving in the wake of God’s Own Country, this is another critically acclaimed story of homosexual awakening and first love, adapted from André Aciman’s novel and  directed by Luca Guadagnino. Previews were’nt available, but, set in   the north of Italy in the summer of 1983,  it stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman a precocious 17- year-old American-Italian who whilea away his time in the family’s lavish villa transcribing and playing classical music. He flirts with his friend Marzia (Esther Garre) and has  a close bond with his father and mother, (Michael Stuhlbarg. Amira Casar), respectively a classics and a  translator. Then, one day, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American academic working on his PhD, arrives to intern with Elio’s father,  stirring the awakening of desire over the course of a summer romance. (Electric)

The Death of Stalin (15)

As the writer of The Thick of It and its film spin-off, In The Loop, as well as the American version, Veep, Armando Iannucci is unquestionably the sharpest and funniest political satirist of the 21st century, added to which he also wrote and directed numerous episodes of I’m Alan Partridge and the subsequent feature Alpha Papa. So, you should know that his latest, a comedy set around the power struggle to fill the shoes of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin following his death, an adaptation of the French graphic novels, is going to be caustically hilarious.

It opens  in 1953 with Paddy Considine as Andreyev, a radio producer who’s just broadcast a live  piano concerto, featuring soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), when he gets a call from Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) demanding to a copy of the recording. Unfortunately, it wasn’t recorded. So, he has to prevent the audience from leaving, round up some people from the streets to fill the empty seats, bring in a replacement conductor and tell the musicians to do it again, assuring them that no one’s going to get killed.

The disc is duly collected and taken  to Stalin (along with a hidden note from Yudina), who’s just finished a tense dinner and a screening of a John Ford Western with the inner circle, among them preposterous, pompous and somewhat oblivious deputy leader Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) in his bad wig, Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), secret police  chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and foreign affairs minister Molotov (Michael Palin) whose just been added to Beria’s new list of ‘traitors’ to be eliminated, as was his wife, he himself, an avowed Stalinist, condemning  her supposed treachery.

But then, returning to his office, Stalin reads Yudina’s note, promptly has a seizure. When his not quite yet dead body is discovered the next day everyone vacillates over calling whatever doctors haven’t been exiled from Moscow and, when he finally pops his clogs, sparking a power struggle to take over with everyone scurrying around like headless chickens. Malenkov becomes the de facto new leader, closely manipulated by the Machiavellian Beria who, for his own duplicitous reasons,  immediately sets about ‘pausing’ the executions and freeing prisoners, pre-empting an increasingly frustrated Khrushchev who sees this as a chance for reform and ends up being assigned the thankless  job of arranging the funeral.

They also have to deal with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) who’s been driven to distraction by the death and his embarrassing deadbeat drunkard son Vasily (Rupert Friend) who insists on speaking at the funeral. And, as the plotting grows more intense between the rivals to the throne, enter Jason Isaacs giving a scene-stealing Yorkshire-accented turn as the truculent bully boy war hero Zhukov, enlisted by Khrushchev to scupper Beria’s plans.

You  might want to brush up on your Soviet Who’s Who first, but, although Iannucci does play fast and loose with the facts and chronology, this is comedy not a history lesson (though it clearly has contemporary resonances), and, as with his past work, power and incompetence go hand in hand with political stupidity, mining laughs from one of the most brutal periods in Soviet history and playing it  out as a farce peppered with lines like “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.”  Malcolm Tucker would have been right at home.  (Mockingbird)

Filmstars Don’t Die in Liverpool (15)

She was Gloria Grahame, a four-time divorcee faded movie star from the black and white era and Oscar winner for the Bad and the Beautiful whose fortunes had declined after she refused to play the Hollywood game, he was Peter Turner, an aspiring Liverpudlian actor. Meeting in London in 1978 where she was living in the same digs while appearing in a stage production, she asked him to help practise her dance moves and they subsequently became friends and then, despite a 29-year age gap, lovers, Turner moving first to California and her beach front home and then into her Manhattan apartment.

The affair ended badly in 1980 when Grahame threw him out and he returned  to Liverpool to start work on a  new play. Then, one day in 1981, he received a call saying she had been taken hill in Lancaster just as she was about to on stage. Peter collected her and brought her back to his parents’ home, she refusing to see a doctor and insisting that she would recover here. He subsequently learned that she had advanced stomach cancer.

All of this is recalled in Turner’s memoir of the same title, a reference to something said by his Uncle Jack (though never actually spoken in the film) and now brought to the screen by director Paul McGuigan and writer Matt Greenhalgh with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell giving sensational performances in the lead roles with solid support from Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as his parents, Bellla and Jo, Stephen Graham as brother Joe and, in a notably striking scene, Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s British former stage-actress mother and Frances Barber as her acid-tongued jealous sister Joy.

Set in 1981 but flashing back (in a theatrical style) two years to their earlier relationship, it’s a tender, warm  and often very sensual and funny May-December love story, a particularly amusing moment being when Peter takes her to see Alien and her reactions to the legendary chest scene are rather different to his and the rest of the audience.

Inevitably likely to be compared with My Week With Marilyn, this may not have quite the same relationship complexity and it never fully explains Grahame’s clearly deep connections with Peter’s parents and his confession of a bisexual past adds nothing to the narrative other than to underscore how, while he told her personal truths, she kept her cancer from him. With Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend providing the musical motif, it arguably hits its poignantly emotional peak in a scene where Peter takes her to the deserted Liverpool Playhouse  to give her a special gift, but its humanity, compassion and the deep vein of love and friendship that permeates the entire film make this an unmissable experience.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park)

 

The Florida Project (15)

Working with a bigger budget and more sophisticated equipment than his previous offering, Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, director  and co-writer Sean Baker offers a bleak and bittersweet portrait of dysfunctional life below the poverty line on Orlando’s fringes, events set around  The Magic Castle, a cheap motel in a run-down suburb within almost spitting distance of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Florida resort, the helicopters ferrying guests landing and taking off within view of the motel, some, as in the amusing opening sequence with a couple of honeymooners, accidentally booking in here by mistake.

A  last resort doss house for any number of life’s losers,  it’s managed by Bobby (a superbly understated Willem Dafoe, one of the few professional actors in the cast), a gruff but good-hearted reluctant father figure  to its motley residents, among them heavily tattooed, combative  young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) who, a former stripper and now currently unemployed, is struggling to raise the weekly rent, reselling knock off perfumes to the tourists and relying on waffle  hand outs from a  friend down the local diner to  feed her feisty six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We first encounter her with her friend from upstairs, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting  from the balcony on to one of the cars below. The confrontation with its naturally irate owner leads to Moonee striking up a friendship with new resident Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and the film then follows the mischievous but essentially innocent escapades of these street urchins, interspersed with Halley’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise the cash she needs, eventually resorting to advertising sexual favours. Inevitably, at some point social services arrive on the scene.

There’s no plot as such, rather a series of anecdotal incidents variously involving Halley scamming a tourist with stolen Disneyland wristbands, the burning down of a building on an abandoned housing development.

In many ways echoing Mark Twain and the Our Gang movies of the 30s, with its improvisational, documentary-like feel and abrupt unresolved ending, it’s not going to be for anyone, but for those prepared to let it wash through them, it presents a sobering and depressing vision of the scrap heap of the American Dream as well as an emotionally challenging observation on parenting in a world where hope has long packed its bags and left. Halley is at once incredibly  selfishly irresponsible and yet passionately committed in her relationship with Moonee who, for all her rudeness and impertinence carries no malice, merely mirrored behaviour and the scenes of childhood friendship between her and Jancey (the two young stars giving terrific, scene-stealing but natural performances) are bursting with both joy and heartbreak. As is the film.  (Electric)

 

I Am Not A Witch (12A)

Directed by Rungano Nyoni using non-professionals, this is an engaging if somewhat enigmatic and often surreal film about witchcraft in rural Zambian society that also serves to take a satirical swipe at government corruption, superstition and misogyny.

Returning from collecting water, a woman is surprised to see a small young girl in her path. She drops the bucket and runs off. The girl, later to be named Shula (Margaret Mulubwa) is then accused of being a  witch and, after her case is heard by a  clearly bemused local female police officer, in which the girl says nothing,  she’s interviewed by self-important government official Mr Banda (Henry Phiri). He takes her off to off to the local witch settlement where the women, their faces caked in white paint and under the management of the opportunistic, exploitative Tembo (John Tembo) are used to gurn for photos as a tourist attraction and pretty much as slave labour.

Like the others, a long white ribbon, mounted on a  giant reel,  is attached to her back to prevent her running off and she’s confined to a hut to decide whether to cut the ribbon and turn into a  goat or leave it and accept herself as a witch and become part of the community.

As such, while welcomed by the other women, who essentially become her surrogate mothers, since witches are presumed to have magical powers, she’s hauled out by Banda to judge a group of suspects accused to theft and identify the guilty party (more by luck than judgment) and , later, to try and end the drought by summoning up rain. Tembo even uses her to promote a range of supposedly magical eggs.

Although often played for laughs (especially the story of one ‘eye-witness’ declaring how Shula chopped off his arm, both of which he clearly still possesses) , there’s nevertheless a potent vein of social criticism and  feminist allegory and  Nyoni makes highly effective use of  visual imagery, most especially those ribbons and the spindles mounted on long poles on the trucks that ship the women to the fields for work.

It’s not always sure-footed and Noyoni isn’t always clear about what she’s seeing to say, and it’s difficult to know whether we should regard the ending as sad or celebratory or what to make of the final shot, but even so, this is engrossing cinema. (MAC)

 

Jigsaw (18)

Seven years on from the so-called Final Chapter and eleven years after John Kramer (Tobin Bell) – aka Jigsaw, the  sadistic serial killer with a warped sense of morality, met his end in Saw III, he’s apparently back as a new writing and directing team look to resuscitate the franchise and give it some new, ahem, blood.

The action cuts between two sets of events, as we first meet five unrelated captives with buckets over their heads and chains that draw them towards a series of buzzsaws. They’re quickly whittled down to four, the dead body turning up hanging from a tree in the local park. Investigating the murder, the body having half its head sliced off, the coroner team, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonnerville (Hannah Emily Anderson), quickly conclude from the forensic evidence, and a memory stick with an audio recording hidden on the body, that, impossible though it seems, this is the work of Jigsaw.

Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), who worked the original cases, doesn’t buy this and reckons it’s the work of a copycat. Meanwhile, back in Jigsaw’s lair, the survivors, Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles, Ryan (Paul Braunstein) and Carly (Brittany Allen) are told that, if they want to live, they have to play his games and confess their sins. One by one their numbers are  bloodily reduced to two, meanwhile Bonnerville’s revealed to have  a Jigsaw obsession while Logan convinces surplus to plot Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennet) that it’s the clearly shady  Halloran who’s actually the killer.

As you’ll have assumed, there’s a shoal of red herrings swimming around not to mention a well-worn sleight of hand to explain how Kramer can still be carrying out his gruesome and graphically detailed Punisher-like killings when he should be rotting in the grave. However, once the curtain’s pulled back to reveal what you’ve been watching, it quickly becomes apparent that the pieces don’t fit and the contrived set-up and motivations lack both logic and plausibility. However, the fact that you don’t care about any of the characters,  that it’s not remotely scary or as clever as it thinks it is, is unlikely to prevent this from cranking up another sequel.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Justice League (12A)

Directed by both Zack Synder and Joss Whedon after the former had to quit following a  family tragedy, this picks up from Batman v Superman as, with Superman gone, things are getting pretty dark, the opening sequences finding Batman (Ben Affleck) taking on some winged demon while, back in London, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, unquestionably the film’s true star) foils a terrorists strike on a bank.

Aware that there are dark forces gathering, Bruce Wayne looks to put together a  team of gifted individuals to combat the  alien threat to the planet. This comes in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) an ancient horned helmet evil entity who, with the help of his Parademons, is bent on plunging Earth back into the dark ages and reshaping it in his image; however, to do this he needs to recover the three ‘Mother Boxes’, sources of immense power (which fans will know are linked to Darkseid), that were fought over and hidden eons ago by a coming together of the Amazons, the Atlanteans and mankind as they  finally managed to defeat him and sent him into exile. However, the death of Superman has disrupted the fabric of things and allowed Steppenwolf to return to pick up on his mission where he left off.

So, in addition to Wonder Woman, Wayne also turns to Arthur Curry aqa the mysterious and heavy-drinking Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Atlantean protector of the seas, Victor (Ray Fisher), a former athlete rebuilt by his father as the man-machine Cyborg after an accident, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a wide-eyed kid who’s developed super speed after being struck by lightning, known to comic book devotees as The Flash, although he’s never called that here. Initially, he’s the only one eager to join up, but he’s also the least experienced.

Matters hit crisis point when Steppenwolf manages to get his hands on two of the Mother Boxes, at which point Wayne decides to use the third, to which Cyborg is linked to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life. Although, at least, initially, he’s understandably a tad disoriented about it all. This isn’t in anyway spoiling the plot, since his resurrection’s been an open secret and the character even appears on all the merchandising! All of which comes to a fast –paced fierce climax in Russia as Steppenwolf, now with all three boxes, looks to be poised on the edge of victory.

Steering clear of the bombast of the previous film and carrying  clear message about working together for a common good, it’s somewhat bitty to start as all the new characters are introduced, but, once the central plot gets under way, it juggles the amusing banter and insult repartee  (mostly between Batman and Aquaman) and action to hugely entertaining effect, reprising Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jim Gordon (JK Simmons) as well as offering a pleasing, if brief reference to Green Lantern, and, if you stay until the end of the credits, the return of a certain bald-headed  character with plans for a group of his own.

It’s not on a par with the Avengers series in terms of character depth and chemistry and it doesn’t thrill in the way Wonder Woman did, but, if not quite  premier League, all concerned can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s a long way from the disaster  many feared. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (15)

As absurdist and bizarre as Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, this reunites the Greek writer-director with its star, a heavily-bearded Colin Farrell, as reformed heavy drinker cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy, joined here by Nicole Kidman  as his ophthalmologist wife Anna. They have two children, adolescent Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and her younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic) and live a comfortable happy life, and, even though he seems a little distant to them, he still deeply loves his kids. The couple also have an interesting line in sex games, one being termed ‘the general anaesthetic’.

Unknown to his wife, Steven also hangs out with Martin ( a suitably creepy Barry Keoghan), meeting him at the local diner or by the river, even buying him an expensive watch. Eventually, he even invites him home for dinner with the family, Martin striking up a relationship with Kim.  There’s apparently nothing sexual about the relationship with Steven, but there is something unsettling. It transpires that Martin’s father died under Steven’s knife, and the latter clearly feels a sense of guilt.

However, after Steven’s invited, in turn, to Martin’s and his mother (a cameoing Alicia Silverstone) makes a pass at him, it soon becomes clear that Martin has his own agenda, and, shortly after an altercation between the two, first Bob and then Kim, lose the ability to stand. Steven’s warned this is the first stage and when they reach the third, eyes bleeding, they will die shortly after. To save them, Steven, who is in denial and initially refuses to accept this is anything other than a medical condition,  must atone for what happened. Given that its inspired by Euripides’ tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis,  the Greek legend of King Agamemnon, who, after accidentally killed a sacred deer,  was ordered to sacrifice his daughter as punishment, you’ll have an idea where this is going.

Acted in a deliberately flat and formal manner, the lines delivered with dry and generally cold  precision, it’s a mix of nightmarish horror and arch dark comedy that calls to mind the clinical coldness of Stanley Kubrik, in particular Eyes Wide Shut, in which Kidman co-starred with then husband Tom Cruise, the unease compounded by the  use of shooting angles and a strident score which frequently erupts in jarring discordant bursts akin to the shower scene in Psycho. Closing with a wordless, menacing coda, this won’t be to everyone’s taste, but its pervasive dread is far more terrifying than any other horror movie this year. (MAC; Sat/Thu:Electric)

Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 

Unquestionably Agatha Christie’s finest murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express is also atypical of the genre in that it concerns not legal but moral justice, delivering what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a remarkably complex narrative in which it is all but impossible to identify the killer, unless, of course, you happen to be the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest detective’, Hercule Poirot.

Marking a foray into new territory for Kenneth Branagh as both director and actor, its expansive widescreen 65mm visuals and glittering cast of acting talent cannot but help recall the classic work of David Lean, but, (as in the book) with its unrelated prologue as Poirot solves the theft of a religious artefact in Jerusalem, as well as this Poirot showing some physical as well as intellectual chops, there’s also a hint of the action hero about it.

Branagh, of course, is Poirot, although his scene stealing performance is frequently threatened to be upstaged by his moustache, a luxuriant set of immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper whiskers that take almost as much getting used to as his Belgian accent which, initially at least, calls to mind Peter Sellers’ French-mangling Clouseau. Indeed, while they might not get their own credit, they do come with a protective cover for when he sleeps.

Branagh also brings complex depth to Christie’s creation, who may be fastidious to the point of being anal (in the opening and closing scenes he tells a soldier to straighten his tie and refuses to eat his boiled eggs unless they are both exactly the same height in the egg cups) as well as lacking in any false modesty, but who, in an invention by screenwriter Michael Green,  is seen to an emotionally wounded soul on account of losing the love of his life rather than the cold fish he’s so often portrayed as being. He’s also remarkably physically imposing figure, a stark contrast to David Suchet’s version.

There have been four other adaptations, one for the cinema, Sidney Lumet’s equally star-studded 1974 version with Albert Finney, and three for television, the most recent being a Japanese version in 2015, and yet it still feels fresh and, even if you know the whodunit, consistently intrigues and holds the attention.

For those coming to it new, the plot entails Poirot, breaking his holiday after being summoned to London, boarding the famous luxury train in 30’s Istanbul alongside a diverse set of apparently unrelated characters, among them, dodgy antiques dealer cum mobster Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to hire Poirot to watch his back after receiving a series of anonymous threats.

While crossing a mountain pass, the train is derailed by an avalanche and Ratchett is found to have been viciously stabbed to death. To which end, Bouc (Tom Bateman) the train director and a friend, enlists Poirot’s help to find the killer before they continue their journey and the police get involved.

The only clues a broken watch, an open window, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial H, there are 13 suspects: Ratchett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Arbuthnot (Leslie Odum Jr.), a Black English doctor, maneater Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeifer) on the hunt for another husband, vinegary Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her assistant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), volatile Russian ballet star  Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), intense Spanish missionary Estravados (Penelope Cruz), racist Austrian professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Italian car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)  and former governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). Like Mary, who denies any connection to Arbuthnot, they’re all hiding something, a terminal illness here, a cooking of the books there. More to the point, as Poirot digs deeper, it also emerges that there’s a connection to the  infamous kidnapping and murder of three-year-old American heiress  Daisy Armstrong, and the subsequent death of her movie star mother and her army Colonel father’s suicide, and the conviction and suicide of an innocent woman. Inevitably, as Poirot tries to put the pieces together, not everyone is who or what they claim to be, and, with the evidence pointing in a myriad directions, all might have motive, while he is forced to question is belief that “there is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

Affording each of the cast the chance to chew some scenery before assembling them all for a  Last Supper –styled line-up as in a tunnel rather than a dining room,  Poirot announces exactly who the killer is, there’s a fair few deviations from the novel in terms of both plot and characters’ names, not to mention an added second twist that could have done with a touch more explanation. However, delivered with both affection for Christie, but also a knowing sense of pastiche, as old-fashioned entertainment  the film succeeds admirably on its own terms, and you don’t have to be a super sleuth to pick up the clue that a Death on the Nile sequel is in the offing. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Paddington 2 (PG)

This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft.  He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton)  birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scenee that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of  a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.

All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing  him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.

The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub  and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.

Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby,  Jon Croker  and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit,  and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people  of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw  again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.

Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator,  gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry.  What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok  (12A)

Almost as much self-aware fun as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, this third outing for the God of Thunder scores high for not taking itself seriously, even if the narrative itself has some decidedly dark turns. Set in the aftermath of  Age of Ultron, when both Thor and the Hulk took off, the opening sequence finds  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) explaining how he’s allowed himself to be captured so as to destroy the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in order to prevent Ragnarok –Asgard’s apocalypse.

That done,  he returns home to expose Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, masquerading as Odin, has persuaded Asgard that he died a hero, with statues and plays commemorating his sacrifice (Hemsworth’s older brother Luke playing the stage Thor to  Sam Neill’s Odin). Forcing his brother to join him in locating the real Odin  (Anthony Hopkins), they learn  he’s dying and that his death will allow the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett archly chewing scenery like a demented Joan Crawford), the Goddess of Death and Thor’s older sister.

Briefly put, she’s not happy that, having helped dad in his conquest phase, when he turned peacenik, he had her imprisoned, and now she’s determines to take control of Asgard and, with the help of pet giant wolf Fenris,  a reanimated army of the dead and her  new sidekick Skurge (Karl Urban) who’s replaced an absent Heimdall (Idris Elba) as the self-appointed gatekeeper of Bifrost,  remake it in her own image, eliminating anyone who tries to stop her.  Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun’s  run in the franchise coming to an abrupt end.

Hela having destroyed his hammer, Thor and Loki wind up separately on Sakaar, a sort of intergalactic rubbish tip where the latter quickly settles in and, captured by  a surly bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), the former’s made to become one of the gladiators in the battles held by the planet’s megalomaniac camp ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum giving it the full  Goldblum ham), against his champion – who, it turns out, is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in his Hulk form. All of which you’ll have got from the trailer and which is just a lengthy set-up as a now short-haired Thor enlists the help of  Banner, the last of the Valykyries and even Loki, dubbing them the Revengers, so they can escape (through a  cosmic wormhole  called the Devil’s Anus)  and return and save Asgard.

With Hemsworth in self-mocking form and Hiddleston again stealing scenes as the untrustworthy allegiance-shifting Loki, the pair sparking off each other in classic double-act style, unlikely but inspired choice of director after his previous small scale but suversively funny offerings What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, New Zealander Taika Waititi ensures there’s Wagnerian doses of action (one set to Led Zep’s Immigrant Song) and serious themes (genocide for starters) to go with the plentiful jokes (the screenplay even squeezes in sly wank gag ). He even gets to voice Korg, a rock creature gladiator and putative revolutionary who gets some of the best dry one-liners, as well as finding room for an amusing cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a brief glimpse of another Avenger, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance (giving a scream-like-a baby Thor  a short back and sides)  and even the revelation that Tony Stark’s a Duran Duran fan. Oh yeh, and there’s also a naked Hulk in a hot tub. At times operatic, at others, gloriously silly, this might just be the best and most enjoyable Marvel movie yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

 

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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