HORRIBLE HISTORIES: THE MOVIE – THE ROTTEN ROMANS

Cert PG 92mins Stars 3

After ruling the children’s book charts for over twenty years and dominated the TV schedules for a decade, the Horrible Histories team have set their sights on conquering the big screen with this amiable lightweight romp around Roman Britain.

It’s enjoyable enough and sticks closely to a strategy which has served so well in a lengthy campaign to subjugate the nation’s schoolchildren to the Horrible Histories super successful brand of historical facts, bodily fluid jokes and knockabout songs.

Sebastian Croft and Emilia Jones are the pleasant and fresh-faced leads, with he as a Roman teen sent to Britain as punishment where he’s captured by her feisty Celtic wannabe warrior.

Well known faces such as Nick Frost and Lee Mack pop up, though notably the bigger names such as Warwick Davis and Derek Jacobi are only cameo appearances.

Liverpool born actress Kim Cattrall adds a touch of class as Emperor Nero’s mother, and is game for a laugh. And while her absence from the big screen has been a loss for us all, at least this is closer to reality and a lot more fun than 2010’s Sex and the City 2.

Considering the long-lasting impact the gadabout and blood-thirsty Romans had on Britain, and for which we have exhaustive knowledge, this is never horrible or historical enough.

And it feels as if a TV episodes worth of material has been stretched to fill the movie’s length, with the script failing to up its game to compensate for the lack of a Hollywood budget.

With crushing inevitability the best gag is a riff on Kirk Douglas’ Roman gladiator classic, Spartacus, and with the rest of the gags relying heavily on a mix of music and teenage hormones, joke quality-wise this is feels more like kid-friendly Carry On Cleo, or could possibly be retitled, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Sixth Forum.

MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE

Cert 12A 101mins stars 3

By framing the relationship between musician Leonard Cohen and his ‘muse’ Marianne Ihlen, as an enduring love story, this uninspired documentary puts the most positive possible gloss on 1960’s rock star behaviour.

If like me you know little about the Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist, Cohen, you’ve certainly heard his 1984 song, Hallelujah which Alexandra Burke bellowed to chart topping X Factor success in 2008, and this is an easy to follow introduction to his life and work.

In 1960, Cohen lived in an idyllic Greek island, Hydra, with the beautiful Norwegian divorcee, Marianne Ihlen, in a relationship which lasted for most of the decade.

She inspired his songwriting, appeared on his album covers, and supported and mothered him while he mined their relationship for commercial success.

Cohen comes across as a selfish and indulgent character who treated her as little more than a long-term groupie, and she was foolish enough to judge him not by his actions, but by his words of love.

THE CURRENT WAR

Cert 12A 108mins Stars 2

The star wattage of Benedict Cumberbatch is insufficient to transform this shockingly static historical drama into electrifying entertainment.

As work-obsessed inventor Thomas Edison he’s in conflict with Michael Shannon as arch-rival George Westinghouse to supply electricity to the homes and businesses of the US in late nineteenth century. Nicholas Hoult and Tom ‘Spider-man’ Holland also appear.

There are deaths as in any war, with the most notable here being William Kemmler, the first victim of the electrical chair, collateral damage from whom both innovators are keen to distance themselves from.

But the only really moving fatality is a horse who is sacrificed in pursuit of a tactical advantage.

Despite being stitched together with handsomely designed CGI cityscapes and stuffed full of corporate espionage, ambition, tragedy and world changing inventions such as the electric light bulb and cinema, the drama lies as inert as Frankenstein’s monster on the slab, waiting in vain for an electricity to jolt it to life.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

Cert 12A 117mins Stars 4

This delightfully entertaining and thoroughly British crowd pleasing coming-of-age comedy drama is soundtracked to the gloriously epic songs of US rock legend, Bruce Springsteen.

Based on the memoirs of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, which charts his time attending Luton Sixth Form College in 1987, fictionalised here as Javed, and played with infectious and endearing enthusiasm by Viveik Kalra.

And for those of us old enough to have been a small town older teen at the time, this is a moving and uplifting nostalgia trip.

His ambitions to be a writer brings him into conflict with his authoritarian, traditional minded and in his own way, heroic, father, a wonderfully proud and pained performance by Kulvinder Ghir.

And in order to marry the differing demands of his Pakistani heritage and British upbringing, Javed finds solace and inspiration in the tunes of Springsteen.

He’s cajoled by Hayley Atwell’s English teacher, finds sweet cross-cultural romance with Nell Williams’ political activist, and forms a winning friendship with Aaron Phagura’s Sikh student.

Springsteen probably didn’t have the UK’s M1 northbound lane to Manchester in mind when he wrote timeless rock classic, Born To Run, but it’s one of many of his great tracks which fuel the film and continue to thunder across boundaries of race, gender and geography.

These are topics Director Gurindar Chadha has tackled many times before in films in films such as Bend it Like Beckham, and she’s particularly good at awkward family dynamics, maintaining sympathy and understanding for each of Javed’s family, despite their divergent lives.

The Thatcher-era of racism, redundancy and rise of nationalism are confronted head on, which the filmmakers use to pass scathing comment on our similarly turbulent political times.

It’s this spiky approach which elevates this above the schmaltz of Richard Curtis’s recent Beatles cinematic love-in, Yesterday. And another huge bonus is there’s no Ed Sheeran.

PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE

Cert U 99mins Stars 2

A young woman goes on a quest to save her little brother in this depressingly unambitious musical animated adventure based on the kids plastic toys and aimed at easy-to-please five year olds.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Gabriel Bateman play siblings Marla and Charlie, who begin as real people but are magically changed into living toys when they’re transported into an animated realm full of pirates, cowboys, vikings and dinosaurs.

Despite this seemingly difficult to get wrong premise, it quickly runs out of energy, interest and fun.

Taylor-Joy has been terrifyingly great in dark horrors such as Split, and The Witch, and isn’t fazed by the change in gear required, bringing bouncy enthusiasm and gloss to the weak script, which offers Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe a one note supporting role.

When I was a kid Playmobil were always second choice to LEGO, and in terms of technical expertise, animation, songwriting, warmth and humour, this lags a long way behind either LEGO movie.

 

GWEN

Cert 15 82mins Stars 4

Pierce the swirling mists of this superbly crafted gothic folk story and you’ll discover a burning anger at the evils of empire building, making for an impressive debut feature film from writer and director William McGregor, who previously worked on TV’s Poldark.

The bleak majesty of rural Wales is as full of ghostly figures and wild axe-wielding women as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but the sinister and rapacious unseen forces affecting a family of women are not supernatural, but the economic exploitation of the industrial revolution.

Gwen is the teenage daughter whose father is at away at war and must help her mother in the running of their small impoverished sheep farm. Merseyside born Eleanor Worthington Cox gives a wonderfully plaintive performance in the title role.

Maxine Peake plays her mother with a grim and wounded ferocity and contributes to this being a far more gripping and politically biting experience than 2018’s similarly themed Mike Leigh period drama, Peterloo, in which she also starred.

 

THE DEAD DON’T DIE

Cert 15 105mins Stars 3

This offbeat black comedy zombie apocalypse shuffles to the unique, intriguing and pessimistic rhythm tapped out by writer, director and all-round indie maestro, Jim Jarmusch.

A man-made eco-disaster has enabled the dead to rise and feast on the intestines of the living, kickstarting a very bad day for small town cops, Bill Murray and Adam Driver.

Seemingly engaged in a private competition as to whom can deliver their lines in the most deadpan and downbeat way, they’re among several Jarmusch regulars who appear, such as singer Tom Waits as a gravel voiced narrator, and Tilda Swinton’s samurai sword wielding Scottish undertaker.

Full of nods, winks and direct references to other movies, the self-aware script and knowing performances play on the audiences’ familiarity with the actors and situations, confounding expectations and adding layers of meaning to the most deliberately banal dialogue.

A lament for cinema as well as humanity, it suggests we’re all dead men walking and it’s what we deserve.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME

Cert 15 105mins Stars 2

Even the most eager seekers of supernatural scares will struggle to find anything to get their teeth into with this seventh instalment in the Conjuring horror franchise.

Designed as a standalone film so you don’t have to seen any of the others, the haunted Annabelle doll is safely locked up in the suburban basement of the Warrens, the married self-styled consultants of demonology and witchcraft.

When the paranormal investigators leave their young daughter in the care of her high school babysitter and her impetuous best friend, Annabelle unleashes various demonic spirits such as a hellhound, a haunted wedding dress and a samurai warrior, who stagger about infirm of purpose.

Time drags in this severe case of consequence-free paranormal inactivity, and nearly all the action is limited to the house, with its early 1970s styling being the creepier than the ghouls

It all feels like an episode of Ben Stiller’s Night At The Museum films, but without the scares, or the laughs.

STUBER

Cert 15 93mins Stars 3

Cops and cars cause chaos in this middle of the road mismatched buddy action comedy which never goes full throttle.

Marvel action star Dave Bautista stars as a rule breaking LAPD detective who commandeers Kumail Nanjiani’s Uber taxi to chase down bad guys.

Near blind after eye surgery, the cop is determined to catch the drug dealer who killed his partner, and his obsessive behaviour threatens to thwart the driver’s romantic plans for the evening.

The stars work hard to generate sufficient comedy friction to power the workaday plot, with their banter punctuated by blood-splatting shoot-outs and hard punching fistfights.

Easily the best scene is a shoot-out in an animal hospital where bullets fly to the sound of The Hollies pop song, The Air That I Breathe.

It’s generally not a great advert for LA’s taxi drivers or its police as the pair leave a path of property damage and death in their wake, however there’s a surprising lack of car chases as Nanjiani’s electric car isn’t up to haring around at 100mph in the manner of Steve McQueen in 1968’s car chase classic thriller, Bullit.

Instead the script uses the duo’s generational culture gap to comment on changing ideas of masculinity, while also playfully mocking the conventions of action movies.

A strip club is full of male dancers, which would never have happened to Mel Gibson or Sly Stallone in their all-action heyday.

As Bautista channels old fashioned angry machismo, Nanjiani provides mild mannered metropolitan sensitivity, and both are unable to express their feelings to the women in their lives.

Indonesian action star Iko Uwais, gets to show off some of his intense stunt skills, and Bautista’s co-star Scottish co-star from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Karen Gillan, appears all too briefly. I wish she’d been allowed to stick around and kick this into a higher gear.

 

TELL IT TO THE BEES

Cert 15 108mins Stars 4

There’s a powerful sting to this bittersweet coming of age postwar period drama based on Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel, and which successfully transfers the setting from Yorkshire to Scotland to exploit the austere beauty of Stirling.

In a lovely natural performance from young Gregor Selkirk who sustains injuries in the playground defending the honour of his single mother, which leads to her meeting the glamorous local doctor.

Manchester actress Holliday Grainger and one-time Oscar winner and star of TV’s True Blood, Anna Paquin, cause a buzz of gossip in the small town as a relationship develops.

An eloquent cry for compassion which is horribly relevant today, the script skewers hypocrisy, prejudice and how women are punished by society pressures.

It’s a sincere, finely-crafted and moving watch which is all the more remarkable for being directed by Annabel Jankel, who previously co-made the irredeemably terrible video game adaptation, Super Mario Bros, and co-created cult TV character, Max Headroom.