FENCES (12A, 139 mins) Drama/Romance. Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Robertson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson. Director: Denzel Washington.
Released: February 10 (London and selected regional cinemas); February 17 (UK & Ireland)
Nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Fences is an assured film adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed for the screen by Denzel Washington.
The actor already has two golden statuettes on his mantelpiece for the films Glory and Training Day, and he is vying for a third Oscar for his showy performance here.
Such plaudits come as little surprise since Washington is well acquainted with the stage production.
He simmered with tightly coiled rage in a 2010 Broadway revival co-starring Viola Davis.
Both won coveted Tony Awards for their incendiary portrayals of a couple struggling to hold together their marriage against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and bigotry in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Reunited on the big screen, Washington and Davis rekindle molten chemistry and are able to suck us deeper into their characters' suffering with the benefit of lingering, tear-stained close-ups.
Fences remains unerringly faithful to its stage origins and feels rather static, unfolding predominantly within the rooms or backyard of a modest home where family members trade bruising verbal blows.
Strong-willed patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington) presides over this tug-of-war for supremacy.
He works as a rubbish collector alongside best friend Jim (Stephen Robertson), who loves to listen to Troy's anecdotes.
"You got more stories than the devil got sinners," quips Jim.
Troy toils in order to provide for his wife Rose (Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo).
The young man is a gifted athlete and is being scouted for college football.
Troy refuses to sign his son's permission slip because he believes the football leagues are rife with racial prejudice and he doesn't want his flesh and blood to fail, as he did playing baseball many years before.
This refusal to support his son's dream drives an insurmountable wedge between Troy and Cory.
"I'm the boss around here. I do the only saying what counts," barks the old man defiantly.
Meanwhile, the patriarch clashes with his other son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who only seems to materialise when he needs money.
Financial pressures tip Troy over the edge and his rage and frustration explode with devastating consequences.
Fences is a glittering showcase for the ensemble cast, led by the imperious Washington and Davis, who don't hold back in pivotal scenes.
The latter richly deserves her Oscar nomination, and she'll almost certainly win for deftly capturing the steeliness of a mother hen, who has sacrificed everything for her brood.
"I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don't you think I ever wanted other things?" she rages.
Period detail is impressive and even though there is a palpable lack of cinematic dynamism to proceedings, there are plenty of dialogue-driven fireworks.
:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 7.5/10
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (U, 104 mins) Animation/Comedy/Action/Romance. Featuring the voices of Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Jenny Slate, Hector Elizondo. Director: Chris McKay.
Released: February 10 (UK & Ireland)
Everything was awesome with the 2014 computer-animated comedy The LEGO Movie, which cleverly brought together DC Comics superheroes in a world of coloured building bricks.
Humour was pitched perfectly between the young and the young-at-heart, and a knowing script mined humour from the physical limitations of LEGO without dinting the brand's enduring appeal.
This polished spin-off, directed by Chris McKay, comes close to capturing the magic of the original.
The beginning is a very good place to start with The LEGO Batman Movie because the opening five minutes of credits and droll voiceover are sheer perfection.
"All important movies start with a black screen," growls Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), providing a hilarious running commentary of the production companies responsible for his film.
Sly digs at previous incarnations of the Caped Crusader on the big and small screen up the comic ante, as the titular vigilante panders to his overinflated ego.
"Remember kids, if you want to be like Batman, take care of your abs!" he advises.
It's genuinely one of the finest animated opening salvos since the wizards at Pixar had us sobbing into our handkerchiefs with Up.
The rest of McKay's picture is a delight but doesn't scale the same dizzy heights of razor-sharp hilarity.
Batman wallows in loneliness at Wayne Manor where loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) expertly pinpoints the source of his master's malaise.
"Your greatest fear is being part of a family again."
Soon after, Commissioner James Gordon (Hector Elizondo) hands over control to his daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson), who calls into question the effectiveness of Batman when all of his nemeses including The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate) remain at large.
Despite the stinging criticism, Batman is smitten - cue strains of Cutting Crew's 1986 ballad (I Just) Died In Your Arms - and in the midst of this romantic fog, he inadvertently agrees to adopt plucky orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).
The boy wonder infiltrates the Bat Cave, home to the Bat Train, Bat Submarine and a Bat Kayak, and picks out a spandex outfit so he can join his new father on night-time escapades.
And Batman desperately needs a sidekick when The Joker unleashes every villain in the galaxy on Gotham including the Daleks, which Batman casually dismisses as "British robots".
The LEGO Batman Movie induces whoops of glee as familiar characters poke fun at their mythologies.
"We're going to punch these guys so hard, words are going to spontaneously materialise out of thin air," confirms Batman as a familiar blitzkrieg of "KAPOWs" and "BLAMs" fill the screen during one epic showdown.
Arnett's hysterical vocal performance is heightened by a gushing bromance with Galifianakis' giggling maniac.
Set pieces are animated and edited with boundless energy, whetting appetites for future forays into the LEGO universe.
:: NO SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 7.5/10
20TH CENTURY WOMEN (15, 118 mins) Drama/Comedy/Romance. Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Alia Shawkat. Director: Mike Mills.
Released: February 10 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)
A mother thinks she knows best but is blissfully deluded in writer-director Mike Mills' autobiographical drama set in the warm glow of late 1970s California.
Loosely constructed as a series of bittersweet vignettes, 20th Century Women adds a fictional gloss to the filmmaker's memories of his free-spirited mother, played on screen by the luminous Annette Bening.
It's a peach of a role for the four-time Academy Award nominee, who glides through each nostalgia-tinged frame armed with killer one-liners ("Wondering if you're happy is a great shortcut to being depressed,") as she hungrily sucks inspiration from an omnipresent cigarette.
Her character even has a tart retort for her nicotine addiction - "When I started they weren't bad for you, they were stylish and sort of edgy," - which allows her to puff merrily in front of her teenage son.
There is no clear narrative thrust to Mills' freewheeling screenplay, but for all its fragmented reminiscence, the script does fully bring to life deeply flawed yet lovable characters as they wrestle with self-worth, sexual awakening and mortality.
The epicentre of the emotional whirl is bohemian mom Dorothea Fields (Bening), who gave birth to her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) when she was 40.
She divorced her husband, who telephones on Jamie's birthday and at Christmas, but otherwise, mother and son are an inseparable unit.
They share a ramshackle home in Santa Barbara with New Wave photographer Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig) and handyman William (Billy Crudup), who is slowly renovating the property.
This madcap menagerie of misfits is completed by 17-year-old waif Julie (Elle Fanning), the object of Jamie's hormone-driven affections, who refuses to entertain his clumsy fumbles.
"Friends can't have sex and still be friends," explains Julie. "I like us like we are."
Duly rebuffed, Jamie focuses his clumsy efforts instead on Abbie's punk friend, Trish (Alia Shawkat), who worries that he is too young.
"Age is a bourgeois construct," he counters.
Meanwhile, Dorothea grows concerned that she can't provide for her son's emotional needs and entreats Abbie and Julie to help her shepherd Jamie across the rubicon to adulthood.
Anchored by Bening's tour-de-force theatrics, 20th Century Women is a compelling family portrait daubed in a similar style to Mills' previous picture, Beginners, starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor.
Both films show boundless affection for their characters and their manifold foibles, accepting that there are no easy solutions to the friction that naturally exists between parents and their children.
Newcomer Zumann is a revelation, holding his own in revered company as his teenager searches for equilibrium without a father figure to guide him through various upheavals.
Generous laughs punctuate the sensitively handled soul-searching, which builds into a colourful mosaic of flashbacks, knowing voiceovers and heartbreaking regret.
:: SWEARING :: SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 7/10