Doctor Strange (12A
The comic heavily psychedelic and a precursor of the youth culture fascination with Eastern mysticism, Strange didn’t start out as particularly heroic. Making his debut in 1963 in Strange Tales, briefly billed as the Master of Black Magic, Stephen Strange was a brilliant New York neurosurgeon, but also an arrogant, egotistical and flash playboy, declining to work in everyday A&E because, where’s the money or glory in that. But then, he was involved in an accident that left his hands crippled, rendering him unable to perform surgery. So, he took off on a global search to find someone who could heal them, encountering a figure known as the Ancient One who introduced him to and instructed him in the mystical arts, turning him into the world’s protector against the dark forces.
All of which, with a few tweaks (the biggest and most controversial being that the Ancient One is Celtic not Tibetan origin and played by a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton) is pretty much how his big screen debut plays out the prologue. Benedict Cumberbatch is inspired casting as Strange, strikingly resembling the comic book figure once he grows the trademark beard, bringing depth to a character revealed to be driven by fear of failure, but also, in a screenplay by director Scott Dickerson and C. Robert Cargill, introducing a line in flippant humour and sarcasm not evident in the comics. He and Tony Stark appear to be cut from similar cloth.
In Kathmandu, Strange is approached by the rigidly traditionalist Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who persuades his master, the Ancient One, to take him on as a student, Strange’s initial skepticism quickly giving way (sparked by the experience of having his astral body separated from his physical form) to a driving desire to amass as much knowledge about the mystical arts as possible.
He’s certainly going to need it, since, introduced in the prologue, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), one of the Ancient One’s disciples turned rogue, has stolen a forbidden spell from one of the ancient tomes with which he plans to destroy the three sanctums protecting this world and allowing the dark dimension, ruled by Dormammu, to gain access and domination.
The occult arts is, of course, a licence to let the special effects run riot and the film doesn’t stint (over an hour of footage as shot specifically for Imax), 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.
Although carried over from the comics, Wong (Benedict Wong) here is another of the Ancient One’s disciples and protector of the Hong Kong sanctum rather than Strange’s valet while the romantic interest is provided by Rachel McAdams as fellow surgeon Christine Palmer, a name Marvel fans will more readily associate with the short-lived Night Nurse comics and subsequently Nightcrawler. Aficionados will also be well aware of the antagonistic role Mordo played in the comics, hinted at here and teased in the second of the end credit scenes. The first, of course, continues the now established tradition of linking to another part of the Marvel Universe, an amusing cameo setting things up for Strange’s role in the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak. (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 Light Between Oceans (12A)
Adapted, at great length, from M.L. Stedman’s bestseller by writer-director Derek Cianfrance, this is an upmarket art house tearjerker steeped in themes of guilt, love, forgiveness and redemption as well as philosophical moral quandaries.
Set just after the end of WWI, looking for quiet and solitude after experiencing the slaughter of the trenches, taciturn veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes the temporary position of the keeper of the Janus lighthouse on a remote island off the western coast of Australia, the former occupant having gone stir crazy following the death of his wife.
Sherbourne, however, welcomes the isolation, perhaps in part to assuage his feelings of survivor-guilt. Not that this last long. On his second meeting with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of one of the mainland families. Herself having suffered the loss of two brothers in the war (as revealed in one of the film’s most effective scenes), she takes him on a picnic and suggests he marries her. He demurs, but, a short-pen pal relationship later, they’re wed and sharing domestic bliss in the homestead below the lighthouse. She even persuades him to shave off the moustache. Before long, their happiness is compounded when she becomes pregnant. But then tragedy strikes as she miscarries. And then it happens a second time.
However, within days, Tom spots a rowing boat in the sea, in it a dead man and a living baby girl. It’s his duty to report this, but, when Isabel begs to keep the child, who she names Lucy, and raise her as their own, his love and the suffering she’s been through, persuades him to go along with things.
Inevitably, at some point, Lucy’s real mother will put in appearance, duly doing so at the christening as Tom spots Hannah (Rachel Weisz) weeping at the gravestone for her husband (the fact she was ostracised by her wealthy landowner father – Bryan Brown – for marrying a German adds to the burden of suffering) and daughter, Grace, lost at the sea on the day before Lucy came into their lives.
Although unable to reveal the truth, Tom does leave a note saying the child is well, loved and being cared for, which, naturally enough, brings the local police into the matter. Even so, the secret remains. Until, four years later, when, struck by another pang of conscience, Tom sends Hannah a package, with far-reaching ramifications that lead to Lucy (Florence Clery) being reclaimed and Tom, insisting he forced Isabel to go along with things, on a murder charge and she ultimately faced with an agonising choice. Needless to say, very much chiming with today’s social services, the child’s feelings are given no consideration in the parental tug of war.
Handsomely mounted and with terrific intense performances by Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz, it’s serious-minded period melodrama of Thomas Hardy proportions as it explores the price and sacrifices love exacts, the cruelty of fate and the ill-advised choices made by flawed but good people. Just to underline the symbolism, Tom helpfully explains that Janus is named after the twin-faced god, looking to both the past and the future.
Unfortunately, although never descending into Nicholas Sparks soap opera, the flashbacks to Hannah with her husband (Leon Frost) and baby seem loaded (surely the audience can be trusted to understand her sense of loss) and after carefully building things in the first two acts, the third feels rushed and confused, the characters more one note, and, while the epilogue is undeniably poignant, the crisis of love and loyalty that immediately precedes it is too elegantly handled to unleash the emotions it seeks to elicit. Somewhere between the two turbulent oceans, the film is becalmed. (From Tue: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Train to Busan (15)
A companion piece to his animated horror Seoul Station about various groups of people trying to survive a zombie pandemic in downtown Seoul, South Korean writer-director Yeon Sang-ho extends the narrative to a subtitled live action feature as the titular bullet train’s passengers aboard find themselves trapped with carriage loads of rabid zombies when an infected teenage girl clambers aboard as it departs the station. Among those seeking to survive are players from a high school baseball team, a cheerleader, a pregnant woman and her bulky macho husband, a corporate exec and, the film’s focal characters, divorced fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) who’s reluctantly taking his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-ran) to Busan for her birthday so she can see her mother.
Given that he’s never had much time for her and always put himself first, the narrative arc is, of course, how the situation makes his reassess his relationship and priorities in a film full of sacrifices as the number of survivors continues to dwindle.
At almost two hours, it’s a little overlong for a zombie movie and there is a degree of repetition that could have been trimmed back, but, even so, as the uninfected are forced to retreat from one carriage to the next as they seek to hold back the zombies (who only attack what they can see), the claustrophobic tension and the bloodshed both escalate, until, in the final stretch, only four passengers remain.
As with The Girl With All The Gifts, these living dead don’t shuffle around and, no sooner are they turned, than they start spasming and are back up, bodies distorted as they run in pursuit of prey. There’s two particularly striking sequences, the first as the passengers disembark at what they think is a safe station, only to find a zombie mob awaiting, coming after them like a tsunami, throwing themselves through plate glass and from windows to get to the living, and later when a chain of undead cling to the back of a moving locomotive trying to get aboard.
There is, of course, a political subtext, the film serving as an indictment of the South Korean’s incompetent response to both the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 and the 2015 MERS outbreak while the mistrust and suspicion among the passengers and the exec’s willingness to let others perish to save himself serves as a scathing commentary on the country’s class system and inequalities. Those who regularly suffer Virgin’s overcrowded second class carriages en route to London will sympathise. (Cineworld 5 Ways)
Baden Baden (15)
A French comedy-drama as, following a failed attempt at working on a foreign film set, 26 year-old Ana returns to her hometown of Strasbourg. Over the scorching summer that follows, in an attempt to get her life together, she decides to replace her grandmother’s bathtub with a walk-in shower, eat peas and carrots with ketchup, drive a Porsche, harvest plums, lose her driver’s license, sleep with her best friend and get back together with her ex. (Until Wed: MAC)
Bridget Jones’s Baby (12A) Helen Fielding’s hapless singleton returns to the big screen, reunited with the first film’s director, Sharon Maguire, and a script by Fielding and Dan Mazer (tweaked by Emma Thompson) that works from the former’s 2005 newspaper columns rather than her third novel. Which means Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is alive and married, though not to Bridget (Renee Zellweger), who, we meet blowing out the single candle on her cupcake to mark her 43rd birthday. After a quick flashback (she’s still working as a TV producer, now for the Hard News programme and Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver is missing, believed dead), the plot gets into traction as she’s persuaded by the show’s presenter, Miranda (Sarah Solemani) to join her for a weekend music festival where she accidentally ends up sleeping with an American called Jack (Patrick Dempsey). Then, having first bumped into him at Cleaver’s memorial, just over a week later, she also meets up with Darcy again, this time when they’re both godparents at a christening and, learning that he’s going through a divorce, they too end up in bed.
Three months later, already under pressure to come up with a presentation for the show’s revamp demanded by snotty Gothy new boss Alice (Kate O’Flynn) and her ironic beard colleagues, she discovers she’s pregnant – and either of the two men could be the father.
She also learns that Jack is actually Jack Qwant, a wealthy matchmaking website guru who designed an algorithm for love, and books him on to the show so Miranda can quiz him about his sex life.
Suffice to say, after telling both him and Mark that she’s pregnant, but avoiding mentioning either to the other, coincidence eventually brings all three together and she’s forced to confess she doesn’t know which is the father, leading variously to everyone working as best for the baby and a competitiveness between the two men for Bridget’s affections.
Meanwhile, , Bridget’s mom (Gemma Jones) is standing for her local council, a side plot that chimes with Darcy defending an Eastern European all girl activist punk group and the film’s general juggling between female independence and women’s rights and motherhood and marriage.
Although Bridget 2 was by no means a disaster, this, if not quite up to the level of the first, is far superior, effectively mixing together hilarity and poignancy in a script that is at home with physical slapstick as it is one liners. Thompson is a delight as Bridget’s bemused gynaecologist while further solid support comes from returning cast members that include Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s dad, James Callis (gay mate Tom), Celia Imrie (Una), Neil Pearson (station manager Richard) and Sally Philips as best friend Shazzer. Firth fits right back in as Darcy, the top QC who has problems articulating his emotions, while Dempsey is terrific as nice guy Jack, suddenly discovering that love isn’t just a theoretical proposition. However, as ever, it’s Zellweger who is the film’s heart and who again proves herself one of the finest comedy actresses around with the capability of also tugging at the audience’s heartstrings. It’s been a long gestation, but the end result delivers a bouncy bundle of joy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Until Tue: MAC)
Deepwater Horizon (12A)
Recounting how the titular offshore oil rig experienced a blow out on April 20, 2010, killing 11 and spilling 210 million US gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster is US history, Peter Berg’s film is pretty much your standard disaster movie. Firmly divided into the arrogant BP suits who took safety shortcuts and the heroic workers who questioned such decisions and risked their lives to shut down the rig, the former’s embodied in sneering exec Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and the latter in family man chief electrician Mike Williams (Mark Whalberg) and his manager, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), both of whom point out the many problems with the rig, not least BP’s decision not to carry out an essential safety check. Providing support from the bridge is navigation crew member Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) who radios the mayday and is subsequently reprimanded by rig captain Kuchta as she has no authority.
With heroes and villains clearly delineated, once the slow build up eventually results in the blow out and subsequent inferno, the film gets on with the disaster formula while, back home, Williams’ wife (Kate Hudson) and young daughter (whose experiment with a Coke can foreshadows the events on the rig) wait for news.
The film dutifully milks the exchanges between Harrell and Virdine to underline BP’s disregard for its hired hands in the search for profit and, along with Rodriguez, Wahlberg duly does rugged determination to try and shut things down and get everyone off the blazing inferno.
The film does exactly what it says on the label, albeit the technical jargon will require an engineering degree to follow. However, despite being framed with audio of the real Williams’ testimony and some closing credit captions, other than mentioning how much oil was spilled, it fails to give full detail of the environmental consequences or note that subsequent litigations over negligence. With Berg more at home in chaos than corporate malfeasance, it delivers hugely impressive effects, the rapid edits capturing the way the station turned into a volcano before many even knew there was anything wrong, celebrating the heroism, but ultimately glossing over the real story. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)
Don’t Breathe (15)
The best thrillers build their claustrophobic tension by dispensing with unnecessary subplots and by focusing on the events in hand. Although it takes a while to get going, this is one such. Stuck in an economically depressed Detroit small town, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Daniel Zovatto) and the less likeable Money (Dylan Minette) raise money by breaking into the homes of the more well-to-do, aided by the fact that Money’s father runs a security firm, so he has access to the passcodes and gadgets than can circumvent the burglar alarms. Rocky just needs one big score so she can get away from her dead-beat mother and her trash boyfriend. Cue an isolated old house scoped out by Money, its sole occupant a grizzled army veteran (Stephen Lang) blinded in the first Gulf war, whose daughter was killed by a hit and run rich girl. She got off free and he got a hefty settlement, which Money reckons is stashed somewhere in the house. Although Alex has qualms about knocking over a blind guy, the three eventually decide to go for it.
However, although they dope his ferocious Rottweiler, the man himself proves less susceptible, realising there’s an intruder and swiftly taking out Money. Now, Rocky and Alex find themselves trapped in a darkened house of which their intended victim knows every inch.
And that’s pretty much it as the pair’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid their pursuer, all stubble, white hair and grubby vest, and escape, preferably with the loot, regularly find them in an even worse situation. Since that’s a fairly limited premise, the film, directed by Fede Alvarez, fresh off the back of his Evil Dead remake, introduces a little extra in which the blind man’s revealed to have a secret locked away that suddenly spins the moral compass and entails a rather unpleasant scene of sexual violence involving a turkey baster and Rocky suspended in a harness.
As with all such films, everyone proves surprisingly resilient, walking way from assorted injuries and falls through windows, but, with the house a dimly lit and at times a blacked-out maze, Alvarez uses the shadows to ratchet up the intensity to a level that makes you forget the plot holes. Ultimately, effective though it is, it never quite lives up to the possibilities it offers and, inevitably, ends with the hint of a horror-franchise style sequel. Or maybe that’s just blind man’s bluff. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
The Girl on the Train (15)
One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films, directed by Tate Taylor and relocated from London, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller remains firmly in the second class carriage, but does make occasional rewarding visits to the buffet bar. A secret alcoholic, divorced and miserable Rachel (Emily Blunt) makes the regular commute from the leafy suburb where she’s dossing with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, vanishing from the plot midway) to New York. Along the way, usually in an alcoholic haze from the vodka she sips from her water bottle, she stares at the row of houses where she used to live with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) until, a mix of her drinking and subsequent blackouts and an inability to get pregnant saw him have an affair with and subsequently marry Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who, a stay at home mom, now shares the house with him and their baby daughter. Mentally unstable, Rachel keeps harassing them with anonymous phone calls and there was also an incident when Anna found Rachel in their back yard with the baby.
A few doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a former art gallery employee now working as Anna’s nanny, and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who, although she’s never met them and doesn’t even know their names, Rachel fantasises as the perfect couple of her broken dreams.
So when, one day, she sees Megan snogging someone else on their balcony she’s takes it as a personal outrage and, one evening, in a particularly drunken state, gets off the train and stumbles to where Megan jogs to give her a piece of her mind. Which, when she wakes up, covered in blood, is all she can recall. And, when the cops, in the form of detective Riley (a criminally underused Allison Janney) turn up saying Megan’s gone missing, intimating that she might be a suspect, Rachel, struggling to remember things, embarks on her own investigation, leading her to visit Scott to tell him what she saw and then, discovering the mystery man was his wife’s shrink, Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), tracking him down too.
Nodding to both Victorian melodrama Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the latter’s same voyeuristic constituents, told in disjointed flashbacks it offer glimpses into the lives of the three women and their relationships as a means of explaining their personalities and actions, all three being variously linked by infertility, pregnancy and infidelity.
Rachel is an effective unreliable narrator, her perceptions and memories clouded by alcohol, just as the film plays with the gulf between appearance and reality with everyone hiding some sort of secret, in particular Scott who is actually something of an abusive thug.
Unfortunately, to crank up the thrills, the film is also an unreliable narrator, misdirecting the audience with Rachel’s memories, such as the drunken outburst at his boss’s wife that got him fired, designed to frame her as an unintentional killer. Inevitably, however, as is typical of the genre, it’s where and at whom the film doesn’t make you look that the truth lies.
Blunt is very good as the troubled, self-doubting alcoholic, plagued by memory loss, but convinced she holds the key to Megan’s disappearance, as is Bennett as the no less damaged and complex Megan, but the others are all rather cardboard, one-dimensional figures and, although the film works to make Rachel sympathetic, they’re all rather ugly characters. Riddled with implausibility and the less persuasive the more it goes on, it’s a reasonable enough female victimisation thriller, but it’s no Gone Girl. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; until Tue, Electric)
The Girl With All The Gifts (15)
Extensively filmed in Birmingham, adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel and directed by Colm McCarthy, this post-apocalypse thriller posits a future where mankind has been devastated by a virus that turns people into flesh-eating zombies, hungries, who are attracted to their victims through smell.
Within a military compound run by hard-nosed Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), scientist Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is working on a cure, her lab rats being a collection of children born to infected parents (cue a particularly gory description of how the kids ate their way out of the womb), by removing the subject’s brain and spinal fluid. Incarcerated in cells, the kids, strapped into wheelchairs, are given daily classroom education by Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) who’s developed a particular bond with the genial and helpful Melanie (impressive newcomer Sennia Nanua). However, physical contact is forbidden, as demonstrated by Parks who, wiping his skin of the pheromone-blocking gel, he causes one of the children to go into hungry mode. Needless to say, neither he nor Caldwell regard the subjects as children, referring to them as it and any emotional cues as the “exquisite mimicry of learned behaviour.” Only Justineau sees them as a human.
When the base is overrun, Justineau, an injured Caldwell, Melanie, Parks and accompanying cannon fodder take off to try and make it to the Beacon HQ. Parks still sees the girl as dangerous, Caldwell still wants to use her for a serum and Justineau still wants to protect her, while, out in hungries territory, the muzzled Melanie is actually their best chance of survival.
As such, the film transitions to road movie mode as the dwindling band have to navigate hungries-infested territory (spookily, they stand immobile until a smell or a noise awakens them), the landscapes reclaimed by nature, and, for a while it starts to feel somewhat repetitive, until two discoveries shift the balance of things once again.
It gathers its potency again in the final act where things don’t play out quite as you might have expected, the film blending some bloody sequences with a strong moral resonance and thematic thread as well as the occasional flash of black humour (not one for cat lovers, though). Considine, Arterton and Close deliver what’s required, but are never much more than two dimensional characters, leaving Nanua to do the heavy lifting and, while her inexperience occasionally shows, she brings an intense emotional power to her character, struggling to balance her need for human connection with her need for blood. (Vue Star City)
I, Daniel Blake (15)
A sobering serio-comic tragedy for our benefit cuts times, Ken Loach returns to skewer the callousness of an uncaring system, opening with voice over tas recently widowed, 59-year-old Newcastle joiner Daniel (Dave Johns) delivers a series of increasingly frustrated responses to the ‘health care professional’ assessing his entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance.
Inevitably, although his doctors and physiotherapists have told him not to return to work following his heart attack, he’s declared fit and his application’s denied. Duly visiting the job centre, he’s met with a minefield of implacable digital-by-default bureaucracy and threats of sanctions, the patronising staff ignoring his protestations that he can’t fill anything in online as he doesn’t have a computer or know how to use one. While there, he witnesses the treatment of a Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother and her two kids, recently relocated from London, who, late for an appointment, are refused benefits. He comes to her aid and both are duly ejected. Being a man of kindness and compassion, he helps her further, getting her food and doing repairs around her new flat and bonding with her and the children, the self-possessed Daisy (Briana Shann) and the younger, OCD Dylan (Dylan McKiernan).
The relationship between the members of this impromptu family and the good natured rapport between Daniel and his chancer high-rise neighbour stand in direct contrast to the uncaring attitudes of those embodying the Department of Work and Pensions, although, there is one token job centre employee who does show sympathy and tries to help Daniel through the labyrinth.
Written by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, there are times when it edges into both sentimentality and caricature, but the central characterisations and performances are superb and both the act of protest that gives rise to the title and Daniel’s final testimony will make you want to cheer and cry respectively. At the end of the day, its social commentary about a Kafkaesque bureaucracy isn’t saying anything new, but, as the government’s war of attrition on the poor continues to gather force, it’s a movingly potent reminder that those on the other side of the desk, on the other end of the phone, aren’t clients or numbers, but people with feelings and rights, especially to their dignity and respect. (Odeon Birmingham; Broadway Plaza; Electric)
Six years after Angels & Demons, Tom Hanks returns as Dan Brown’s code cracking academic, Dr Robert Langdon, again caught up in a life-threatening conspiracy involving ancient art and architecture, except this time it involves not some clandestine Catholic order, but a plot to unleash a plague that, to combat overpopulation and save the species, will wipe out at least half of mankind.
Like the previous Langdon novels, the equally labyrinthally-plotted Inferno isn’t great literature, but it is a compelling page turner packed with the many twists and turns. The same holds true of the film which, after we see billionaire prophet of doom Zobrist (Ben Foster) being chased through the streets of Florence before throwing himself from a bell tower, switches to Langdon in a Florentine hospital bed having nightmarish visions. It turns out he’s received a bullet wound to the head and he’s having visions straight out of Dante’s Inferno, the first part of the Italian writer’s14th century epic poem, Divine Comedy, which provides a guide through Hell. Suffering from head trauma memory loss, he suddenly finds himself on the run with English hospital doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) following an attempt on his life by a female assassin posing as one of the Carabinieri.
Hiding out at Brooks’ apartment, he finds that he’s got some thumbprint recognition biochemical container in his pocket containing Botticelli’s circles of hell painting inspired by Inferno. Except, you know, it’s somehow not quite right and there’s letters where they shouldn’t be. If only Langdon could remember how he got it, why he’s there and what his part in all this entails.
That would be enough to be going on with, but, to complicate things further, as he and Brooks set out across Florence (as well as sites of architectural interest in Venice, Switzerland and Turkey, Langdon a living SatNav of their secret passageways), not only is the mystery assassin after him, but so too are some ultra-secret security firm (headed up by Irrfan Khan) and the World Health Organisation with a team led by French agent Bruder (Omar Sly) under his boss, and former Langdon flame, Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), all of whom want to get their hands on Zobrist’s plague.
It is, of course, riddled with narrative holes, the plague plot makes no logical sense and, naturally, nothing and nobody are who they appear to be. At least the film, again directed by Ron Howard, acknowledges the ludicrousness of the memory loss wherein Langdon can’t remember what coffee is called but does recall his email address and password.
There’s a lot of running through old buildings following the clues left by Zobrist as to the bio-device’s location, but it all just seems to be going through the motions as it heaves its way to a ludicrous showdown that essentially pivots on the fact that you can never get a cellphone signal when you need one.
Hanks is reliable enough, but Jones often delivers her lines like she missed the script run through and this is a first rehearsal. It does the job watchably enough, and surely has to be worth seeing just for the surreal moment when a bunch of heavily tooled men burst into Brooks’ apartment shouting “we’re from the World Health Organisation!” (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)
Despite the iffy reviews and indifference which met the first film, Cruise seems determined to turn the Len Wise character into a franchise. However, perfunctorily directed by Edward Zwick, who seems to have no idea of or flair for action movies, this lacks anything resembling visual or technical style, while the moth-eaten plot is riddled with holes and the ‘terse’ dialogue wouldn’t pass muster in an amateur screenwriting contest.
It opens promisingly enough with an extended version of the trailer, although this has nothing to do with what follows other than to set up the connection between Reacher, no longer a major in the Military Police, and his replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Eventually turning up in Washington, he finds she’s been arrested on espionage charges, immediately sussing a set-up and setting out to find out what’s going on. It seems that two of her officers were shot in Afghanistan while investing sales of army weapons to insurgents, and now those responsible want her out of the picture too.
So, he busts her out before they can kill her and the pair take off to uncover who’s behind the conspiracy and prove her innocence. Matters get complicated with the introduction of Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old whose mother has lodged a paternity claim alleging Reacher’s the father. Naturally, the bad guys, who work for the obligatory corrupt arms suppliers, decide to use her to get to Reacher once he sticks his nose into their business.
So, now we have three of them on the run from both the usual array of fixated hitman (Patrick Heusinger), ineffectual henchmen, the military and the cops in a chase that eventually climaxes in New Orleans, the only time the lumbering and repetitive film shows any sense of life.
Yarosh does the best she can with a character the script requires to be and act differently depending on where she is in the plot and Smolders is far better than the film warrants. However, even for a character whose feelings are kept hidden, Cruise seems unusually limited here, registering his emotions by either narrowing his eyes or clenching his jaw, and even the fight scenes, while decidedly violent, lack the excitement of a Mission Impossible. Firmly in the B-movie leagues, it brainlessly whiles away and hour or so, but Cruise really should take the title to heart if he’s contemplating a third installment. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Keeping Up With The Joneses (15)
The new neighbours who aren’t what they seem is a well worn plot device, and is particularly threadbare in this ho hum espionage comedy that never gets out of third gear. Living in an Atlanta cul-de-sac, their kids just off on summer camp, Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher are Jeff and Karen Gaffney; she designs toilets and he’s a Human Resources counsellor for MBI, an aerospace defence corporation. He doesn’t have the same security clearance level as his neighbour, Dan (Matt Walsh), who works upstairs on the hush hush operations, but he does have internet access on his computer, which is why everyone keeps popping down to use it.
Which is the reason married government agents Tim (John Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot) Jones, move in across the road, he supposedly a top travel writer and she a curvaceous social-media consultant with a sideline in charity work. The ever gregarious, if slightly geeky and socially needy Jeff is keen to bond with someone who lives a far more interesting and exciting life than he does, even if a trip to a back room Chinese restaurant almost gets him killed by his snake meal. Karen, however, is less willing to take things on trust and, tailing Natalie, she sees her make a drop, leading to she and Jeff sneaking into the Jones’ home and finding all manner of high tech surveillance gear.
Suffice to say, this aspect of the plot is swiftly abandoned when, rescuing the amateur sleuths from a gunfight, Tim and Natalie confess who they really are and that someone’s using Jeff’s computer to sell military secrets. All of which climaxes in an ineffectually staged showdown when the Gaffneys agree to pull a sting on the villain behind everything (Patton Oswalt).
Underlying all this is Jeff coming to realise what boring and sexless lives he and his wife live compared to their new neighbours, but, like the main thrust of the plot, it’s all handled in such a bland manner as to never really engage. A by the numbers screenplay does cast few favours, Gadot largely seeming to be there to look sexy in lingerie. When things liven up in the third act there a decent quota of action, but, by this time, keeping up feels like running a marathon in lead boots. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
The Magnificent Seven (12A) Yet another remake of a cinema classic (strictly speaking it’s a remake of a remake, since the original was a western variation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), director Antoine Fuqua putting a spin on John Sturges’s 1960 masterpiece in which a bunch of guns for hire come together to protect a Mexican town from a bunch of bandits. Here the town in need of protection being Rose Creek, a frontier community of homesteaders trying to make new lives for themselves while the bandits have been replaced by a ruthless mining baron, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), whose pressed many locals into working in the mine and is pressuring the others into selling up their land at rock bottom prices.
Having disrupted a town meeting, burned down the church and murdered a few of the townsfolk, he’s given them three weeks to decide – or face the consequences. To which end, having just been widowed in the confrontation, feisty Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett) sets out to find help. Enter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a sort of legalised bounty hunter, who, impressed at seeing him in action against a wanted killer and a bunch of other gunnies, she approaches with a deal.
Wearing black in a nod to the character played by Yul Brynner in the original, Chisolm agrees, not least since he has his own history with Bogue (exactly what’s not revealed until the end) and sets about recruiting the rest of the titular cast. Although one of the original seven was Mexican, Fuqua’s line-up is more multi-ethnic, lining up as hard-drinking but charmer cardsharp Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), shell-shocked Civil War Confederate sharpshooter legend Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his loyal knife-throwing Chinese sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), bulky mountain man tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche loner Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Then, having rid the town of the mercenaries and corrupt lawmen and liberated the mineworkers, they have a week to whip the townsfolk into fighting shape before Bogue and his army turn up.
There’s no dramatic deviations from the Sturges film, which means that not all of the seven make it to final credits, and, essentially character types, none of them have much of a backstory. However, making effective use of the landscape, a typical widescreen Western score and tried and tested Wild West clichés, Fuqua directs in solid style, delivering the requisite intense gunfight action as well as some quieter moments. Although Washington and Bennett give the strongest performances, the core cast acquit themselves admirably, both in the action and the quips, and, while this may not have the enduring quality of the original, it serves as potent shot of adrenalin in the ongoing attempt to revive the Western genre. (Vue Star City)
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (12A)
Adapted from Ransom Rigg’s bestseller and directed by Tim Burton, this is a sort of X-Men meets Groundhog Day, complete with a houseful of mutant kids, time loops and scary monsters. Living with his emotionally absent parents, alienated Florida teen Jake Portman’s closest friend his eccentric grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), so, when he gets a message saying he’s in trouble he races over only to find the house ransacked and grandpa dying in the woods, his eyes missing. Not only that, but he sees some sort of monster. This, he’s told, was just an hallucination, but Jake’s convinced now that the stories his grandfather told him as a child, about the house where he grew up, its strange residents, and the monsters, weren’t tall tales.
So, he persuades his father (Chris O’Dowd) that a trip to the isolated Welsh village of Cairnholm where Abe lived as a child under the care of a certain Miss Peregrine, will help him find closure, a suggestion endorsed by his shrink (Allison Janney) Once there, however, he’s disappointed to find the house a burned out shell, having been hit by a German bomb in 1943.
Sneaking off to explore the ruins, he’s greeted by a bunch of kids who look just like the ones in Abe’s old photo. As indeed they are, all having lived in the house, protected by a time loop that constantly resets to the previous 24 hours, for the past seven decades, under the protection of Miss Peregrine (Eva Smith), an Ymbrine who has the power to transform into a peregrine falcon.
They too are Peculiars with their own particular powers or abnormalities: firestarter Olive (Lauren McCrostie), superstrong youngster Bronwyn (Pixie Davies), Fiona (Georgia Pemberton) who can make control plants, Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone) projects prophetic dreams through his eye, Hugh (Milo Parker) has bees living inside him, the invisible Millard (Cameron King), Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) who has the power to bring inanimate objects – and the dead – to life, Claire (Raffiella Champan) who’s blessed with a ferocious set of choppers in the back of her head, the twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell) who always wear masks (their power’s not seen until the last act) and, most significantly for Jake, Emma (Ella Purnell), who has to wear lead boots to stop her floating way and who had a thing for Abe back in the day, a spark that’s rekindled with Jake.
She informs Jake that he too is a Peculiar, although it would be spoiling things to reveal in what way; suffice to say it’s going to come in very useful in the struggle against the shape-shifting Mr. Barron (Samuel L Jackson), a renegade Peculiar who, in the quest for immortality carried out an experiment that backfired, transforming him and his cronies into monsters, referred to as the Hollows and the Wights, invisible in their monster form, who can only maintain human semblance by eating freshly harvested eyeballs, preferably children’s, a need that gives rise to one of the film’s most squirm-inducing (but also blackly funny) moments.
He now wants to capture Miss Peregrine in order to repeat the experiment, and Jake may just be the one to lead him to her and her charges. All of which culminates at Blackpool Pier and Tower with a present day battle involving stop-motion animated skeletons. It’s a bizarre and eccentric tale while also providing an awkward first love between Emma and Jake (cue a cheeky nod to Titanic).
A pity then that, for all its often spectacular visuals and effects, it’s almost all a ponderously lifeless, exposition-heavy and confusing preamble to the rushed – but admittedly exciting – amusement park climax. O’Dowd disappears from the film around halfway never to be heard of again, while Rupert Everett looks highly uncomfortable as a dodgy ornithologist and Judi Dench makes a fleetingly unnecessary cameo as another Ymbrine.
Purnell’s the best of a variable cast of characters that are given little by the way of depth, but, fatally, the usually reliable Butterworth, struggling with his American accent (something that’s the subject of a throwaway in-joke) is a blank, while a consciously brittle Green is far too knowing for her and the film’s good. Not until the customarily scenery-gobbling Jackson eventually shows up is there anything remotely resembling fun. While enjoyable enough in parts, at the end of the day it’s more wan than weird. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
My Scientology Movie (15)
When Louise Theroux tweeted asking for any scientologists to contribute to his documentary about the controversial religion, he received several messages suggesting this might not be the best idea. Inevitably, no one from the Church was prepared to talk to him, but some high profile ‘blow outs’ did come aboard, specifically Marty Rathburn, who acrimoniously quit after 27 years and was the former enforcer for its little seen but much feared and allegedly violent leader, David Miscavige, and Jeff Hawkins, a former Sea Org member, essentially the organisation’s elite SS wing charged with neutralising any negativity from ‘suppressive personalities’.
Since there was never any chance of Miscavige or Tom Cruise participating, Theroux holds auditions for actors to play them in scenes drawn from extant footage of conventions and a rare TV appearance as well as Rathburn’s experiences and, while these take up rather too much time, Andrew Perez, who ends up as Miscavige’s stand-in, is scarily convincing.
It’s not long after before word gets out and they find themselves being themselves filmed and two of the film’s funniest yet unsettling moments are when Theroux confronts a woman and her cameraman opposite their makeshift studio who refuse to say who they are and, later, in run-ins outside Gold Base, Miscavige’s compound, where a woman called Catherine, one of the Sea Org rottweilers, orders Theroux off their private property, all the while having him filmed and ignoring his protestations that it’s a public road. There’s a marvellous absurdist image of Theroux and a scientologist circling each other, the latter with his HD camera, the former documenting the moment on his iPhone, all the while maintaining his trademark ironic politeness.
Naturally, the Church denies all allegations and, in turn, accuses the likes of Rathburn as being vindictive and embittered liars and there’s a particularly awkward moment when Theroux’s probing of Marty’s past elicits an altogether less friendly side.
At the end of the day, it’s a little slow and doesn’t really add much insight to various rumours, allegations and denials, though clearly those seem on camera clearly aren’t one’s you’d invite round for tea and biscuits, but it’s never less than entertaining. (Electric; MAC)
Ouija – Origin of Evil (15)
Despite being a thoroughly forgettable horror, the original movie made enough money to warrant this prequel, one to which Before I Wake director and co-writer Mike Flanagan brings a little more meat and style as well as something resembling emotional depth. Set in 1967 L.A., 50 years before Ouija, it provides a backstory for Paulina Zander (Annalise Basso) who, along with her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson), helps mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) run a spiritualist con from their home, duping the locals that she can communicate with the dead. Looking to add a little extra, Doris introduces an Ouija board, one which does actually seem to forge a connection with the other side. And one which sees the kid possessed by a dark, mouthless entity which could possibly be the spirit of her dead father, thereby requiring the help of local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas. At the end of the day, it doesn’t offer much by way of anything new to the genre, but its acting is sufficiently strong and the scares sufficiently masterly handled to make it one of the year’s better horrors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Queen of Katwe (PG)
In 2013, already one of the first two Ugandan female chess players to become a Woman Candidate Master, Phiona Mutesi won the Uganda National Junior Chess Championship. Remarkable enough in itself, but all the more so since she was only 17, a teenager from Katwe, one of the worst of the Kampala slum villages where she lived with her sister Night, brothers Richard and Brian and widowed mother, Harriet. Based on the book of the same title, this inspirational Disney film tells the story of her rise from selling cassava on the streets to becoming one of the top players in the world of chess. Directed by Mira Nair and starring newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, it begins with her curiosity at seeing a bunch of boys gathering in a shed under the supervision of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former football and star turned part-time ministry worker sports coach who’s persuaded the lads to learn chess. Inviting her to join them, he quickly realises she has an innate gift and intelligence for the game and persuades her pragmatic tough love, self-sacrificing mother (superbly played by Lupita Nyong’o ) to allow her to continue and compete. Phiona’s gathering confidence and ascendency in the chess ranks, competing in the wealthier parts of Kampala, the Sudan and, eventually, Russia, does, however, place more financial stress on the family, something both she and Robert, with the help of his teacher wife, seek to try and alleviate in order for her to keep playing.
Like most underdog sports movies, it follows a fairly predictable journey, complete with the inevitable highs and lows along the way, inevitably also using chess as a metaphor for life, built around themes of community, strength, education, class divides and hope. As rich in emotional colours as the fabrics the women wear, it is rather more extended than need be, stretching out the running time to take in the clash between Harriet and Night, who takes off with one of the local ne’er do wells, but Phiona’s story is one young girls – and indeed anyone struggling to rise above the hand life deals them – should see. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
There have been several animated films this year that could well find themselves with an Oscar nomination. This won’t be one of them. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man behind the likes of Bad Neighbours, Zoolander 2 and Get Him To The Greek, it is every bit as brash and noisy as those, apparently none of the cast able to deliver their lines in anything less than a shout, the entire film the visual and aural equivalent of a serious case of over-caffeination. And let’s not even get into the havoc it’s going to play with parents explaining the facts of life to their kids.
Back in the day, storks delivered babies, but, following an incident in which one of the birds (Danny Trejo) tried to keep the tot for himself, breaking her, quite literal, homing beacon in the process, they got out of the baby business and now deliver parcels from their Cornerstore HQ on Storm Mountain.
Top of the delivery tables is Junior (Andy Samberg) who is thrilled to be told by Hunter (Kelsey Grammar), the big boss who uses little birds as golfballs, that he’s going to be promoted to take over from him at the upcoming StorkCon shareholders meeting. But first, he has to fire Tulip (Katie Crown), who, the baby that never got delivered, still lives with them. Now that she’s 18th (and also because she tends to cause all kinds of chaos), Hunter says it’s time she became part of the human world. However, faced with telling her, Junior just can’t get the words out and, instead, tells her she’s been given a job in the letter sorting office. Which she should never leave. Given that nobody writes asking for babies any more, she’s bored out of her head and spends the time talking to herself, at frenetic speed, acting out (with the help of a pliable hairdo) different personas, each of them excruciating annoying.
Meanwhile, out in people land, his real estate parents (Ty Burell and Jennifer Aniston) always too busy to spend any time with him, young Nate decides he’d like a baby brother, one with ninja skills. Mom and dad dismiss the idea, but, finding an old leaflet about the stork service, he writes a letter which duly winds up in Tulip’s hands and, before Junior can stop her, goes into and reactivates the baby making machine. Now they find themselves with an unexpected tot to deliver, before the meeting and before Hunter finds out. Junior, however, has injured his wing, but, fortunately, Tulip’s cobbled together a makeshift plane.
Without prolonging the agony of explaining things, suffice to say that Tulip’s maternal instincts mean the mission doesn’t go as planned, leaving the trio being pursued by wolves and, thanks to the aptly named Pigeon Toady, quite possibly the most annoying animated character ever, their secret is revealed to Hunter. And to top it all, Jasper, the stork who tried to abduct Tulip in the first place, also turns up, determined to rectify his screw up. All of which somehow manages to end up with Nate’s intended sibling in the custody of Hunter’s penguins and the baby machine churning them out like rabbits.
There are some good, imaginative moments (almost all of them involving Alpha and Beta, the two wolves who fall for the cute pink-haired infant, and the way the pack is forever forming itself into things like a van, plane or submarine), but they’re mostly overwhelmed by the unrelenting screech elsewhere. Undemanding kids may be entertained, but, unfunny, relentless and charmless, the best thing to be said is that it’s not as bad as the profoundly tedious The Master: a Lego Ninjago Short that precedes it. A bundle of joy it is not. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Created in Denmark in 1959, the soft plastic troll dolls with their big eyes, big grins and various shades of furry upcombed hair, kown 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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