Far From the Madding Crowd  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                                  119 Min        12A

A very solid period drama with great performances from central players Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts and equally well balanced direction from renowned auteur Thomas Vinterberg (whose last feature film was ‘The Hunt‘). Based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel (although he did revisit the text significantly in 1895 and again in 1901) of the same name, I had fully intended on reading the book before watching the film so as to get a proper historical context but alas my plans were thwarted on this occasion, which is a shame as the feminist aspect of the story for the time period (the Dorset countryside is the setting, incidentally, and the film was largely shot on location) in itself suggests it may be a worthy read. Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene is the central character (Hardy appears to have relished coming up with character names – the other significant ones here being Gabriel Oak, Sergeant Francis Troy, Fanny Robin and William Boldwood {could Bathsheba have been the inspiration behind Katniss Everdeen?}), and we essentially watch as the local men in the area vie for her attention with a mixture of gentile sensibilities as to how to go about doing this, and then the, erm, not quite so gentile, as the fortunes of Bathsheba herself wax and wane, going from educated but poor into the inheritance of a sizeable farm with a score of staff and potential profits to be made admixt with mishaps delivered by the whims of nature.

So, in this sense there is an overt feminist aspect in that Bathsheba is a strong willed, intelligent and capable young woman surrounded by men whom she must on the one hand with their amorous advances reject, whilst on the other she must lead and command the respect of and also be able to barter with and hold her own against the competition. Mulligan is nigh on perfect in the role as she brings to the fore through subtlety the difficulties this incurs – we can see the adrenaline pumping as she faces off against one of the larger men bearing down on her, and yet her steely nerves carry her through, just as the imperfections and naivety of the character are also there to see as she makes mistakes and allows her ego, bolstered by position, to occasionally overstep the mark.

Yet, the absolute central crux of the story remains rooted in the fact that she is considered physically desirable by the majority, if not all, the males around her – would the novel have been commercially viable if she was perceived as a munter and no one wanted her? Now that would be interesting – men wanting to her marry her for financial gain only, she desiring someone but unable to woo him and at a loss what to do about it given the special constraints of the time, ravaged by the vagaries of her lust and jealousy. Male writers engage with the notion of extreme feminine beauty primarily because it’s what they themselves ultimately desire and thus it provides them and their characters with the most efficient fuel, and yet if literature is to endorse the idea of a universal enchantress then the opposite must also be true, feminine ugliness, generic repugnance, therein you would find a much more hard hitting and relevant expose of humanity. Art in general has always been more than happy to sidestep this concept and indeed you almost never see this kind of story told, although Vinterberg would have been the perfect person to tell it really – Far From the Madding Crowd: Redux.

As it is, the director gives us a distinct duality – the moments of expected beauty where we are spoiled by lovely scenic shots of the countryside with its rolling drumlins, valleys and sunlit lustre, coupled with much more down to earth scenes which look exactly as they would if one were standing there while they were being filmed, lacking much in the way of any filmic sheen but working really well because of it. Make no mistake though, this is much closer to a traditional romance than an exploration of the human condition, as there are several resolutions in the plot that will leave you thinking ‘hmm, that’s convenient’, or deus ex machina if you prefer, and Vinterberg himself buys into this, cue kissy moments with rotating camera and rays of sunlight flitting between mouths and bodies. Support from the likes of Tom Sturridge, Michael Sheen and Juno Temple proves continually apt and fitting and certainly if you are a fan of period dramas and classical romance then you should enjoy this one, and indeed it’s been done well enough to please the casual dabbler in the genre as well.

Mad Max : Fury Road  (2015)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     120 Min        15

Relentless, sometimes drearily so, but ultimately impressively spectacular. I wouldn’t recommend watching this in 3D as it turns the beginning into a huge mess – what’s meant to be a frantic and high octane intro to the film just looks like it’s playing in fast forward with overly jerky camera action despite the impressive stunts on display, as we are introduced to main character Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) just as he is being introduced to his captors for the immediate future.

This is the fourth time director and writer George Miller (he was joined by Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris for the screenplay) has brought Max to life onscreen, the previous three ventures being with Mel Gibson in ‘Mad Max’ (79), ‘Mad Max 2 : The Road Warrior’ (81) and ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ (85), and it’s a series that not only made historic returns at the box office and became a cornerstone of the Australian cinematic boom at the time, but also one that begins in a future dystopia that isn’t visually too removed from our own modern experience and then it heads steadily downward into increasingly archaic and savage distortions of humanity, with disparate tribes living rough in the remaining desert lands of civilisation: all scarce essentials tightly controlled and contested for by gasoline craving heavily armed tribes. This latest instalment continues that downward trajectory and takes it to the nth level with a production scale that is simply mammoth and a central character who’s sanity is constantly prayed upon by his own haunted memories, standing very much as the metaphysical portal to the living hell that surrounds him.

The personal element with Max’s backstory is overplayed and it kind of drags, especially since many will already know what happened from the original film, and although it could anchor a degree of canonical lineage the Max onscreen here is very much a rejuvenation of the character rather than the original a little further down the line from ‘Beyond Thunderdome’. Similarly, it’s the simpler things that detract from the film – the writing in non-action scenarios often feels weak, such as central characters trusting one another too quickly for example, and so too with the direction in these quieter, relatively speaking, moments. The vast majority of the film focuses on a road chase and here the scale of the production is immediately apparent, and indeed it must have been a complete nightmare to film but these sections have been pulled off extremely well, to the extent that they must be a shoe-in for the Oscars, but again it becomes difficult to engage with the same thing happening repeatedly and there is no real grounding for the audience with the characters, as Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and Nicholas Hoult as Nux join the central fray along with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as The Splendid Angharad in her second role since ‘Transformers : Dark of the Moon’ (11).

All the actors very much look the part and Hoult and Hardy do really well, although there remains something a little too refined and soft about Theron for the setting, but where the film shines is when Max hatches his plan for the finale. You very much share in the other characters’ initial reaction to the idea as although in theory it sounds fine, the execution they have planned sounds more than a little foolhardy – but my goodness do they make a proper go of displaying it on film, and it’s this that really lifts the movie back out of the humdrum desolation it was heading into.

As a bit of an aside, at one point in the film they come across a lone tree in the wilderness, the first they’ve seen, and they end up using it as a harness and uprooting the thing – it’s possible, albeit extremely unlikely, that this could be a nod in the direction of the Arbre du Tenere, a tree which was thought to be one of the most isolated living things on Earth standing in the middle of the desert in Niger as the only one for hundreds of miles in any direction and as such it was used by nomads as a waymarker for centuries. Standing, that is, until a reputedly drunk Libyan truck driver accidentally ploughed it over one day. It must be quite an impressive claim to fame to hit the only obstacle that exists within a several hundred mile radius. It’s in a museum now.

Pitch Perfect 2  (2015)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     115 Min        12A

Not quite as on key as its predecessor, the focus here is split too much between the singing of the successful all girl a cappella group ‘The Bellas’ from the first film and their less interesting personal diversions and indeed that too of new character Emily, played enthusiastically by Hailee Steinfeld, with the overall effect a dilution of the original’s strongest elements. The cast have all returned including main players Anna Kendrick as Beca Mitchell and Rebel Wilson as ‘Fat Amy’, with Elizabeth Banks, who plays competition commentator Gail, actually taking over directing duties as well – her last outing being the ‘Middleschool Date’ section in ‘Movie 43‘.

The underlying thread is that all the girls are going to have to deal with their upcoming college graduation and with it the end of their time with the group, but this isn’t really explored enough to be a theme and it’s more of a depressant the way they’ve occasionally inserted it in. Pulling weakly in too many directions, the story goes into Beca’s stealthy attempt to become a music producer as well as Emily’s new girl on the block jitters and her inevitable arc of mistakes made and eventual recovery and acceptance, none of these diversions have any real bite to them though.

Eventually, we are greeted with a group riff-off and here the film comes to life, indeed this is the highlight of the movie as although the Bellas are training to take on German world champions Das Sound Machine, it’s easy to forget any of them really care about it with so much trivia going on elsewhere and there simply isn’t enough of the music. Some fun still to be had though, and The Red Dragon certainly enjoyed the several scenes of Beca questioning her sexuality around the glamour of DSM’s lead female vocalist, played by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen. Again, not nearly enough made of this audience winning visual cocktail.

This song was featured in the first film and was released as a highly successful single for Anna Kendrick at the time. I love the Visit Scotland poster at the beginning – I’m happy to give you a guided tour Ms Kendrick, BEFORE I DEVOUR YOUR SOUL AND MAKE YOU MY MINDLESS SLAVE, or something along those lines …

Spooks : The Greater Good  (2015)    76/100

Rating :   76/100                                                                     104 Min        15

Anyone familiar with the TV series this is based on (which ran on the BBC from 2002 – 2011) will no doubt remember with fondness the show’s winning identifier – you never knew when one of the main characters would get completely annihilated. It made for an exciting watch and it felt more realistic too, given the central players, the spooks, are all MI5 intelligence agents engaged in bullet laden espionage and intense skulduggery. Indeed, I remember getting a boxed set for a season I’d missed and questioning if I’d picked up the right thing, thinking ‘Wait a minute – none of the characters on the front cover of this are in the next season’, didn’t exactly bode well for their survival chances. Speaking of which, anybody remember Keeley Hawes in the series? She was definitely a prime reason for watching it as well …

The film, the first and hopefully not the last big-screen outing, very much follows in that spirit – there are many instances of ‘hmm, are you about to get shot right now?’ and the plot unfolds at a tense pace with enough clues to make you feel like you might be solving the mystery at hand, and yet there’s enough going on to drive the equation just ahead of the audience too.

The central plot involves series stalwart Harry (Peter Firth) taking the heat for a botched op and enlisting the help of someone outwith the agency, Will Holloway (Kit Harington, who is happily on form here), to investigate what really happened, as a serial terrorist and worldwide most wanted man is left at large to plan his next large scale attack. The focus is very much on the twists and turns of the story and it’s easy to get carried along with the constant energy throughout – equally it should also prove exciting enough to forgive the occasional moments where the agents don’t really seem to do a terribly professional job. Though, they are all basically red shirts anyway so I guess it’s to be expected really. Good fun.

The Age of Adaline  (2015)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     112 Min        12A

This follows very much in the recent tradition of time frame related tortured love affairs, after the likes of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ (09), ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (08) and to a lesser extent ‘About Time‘, and in this case it revolves around central character Adaline (Blake Lively) enduring a fateful car crash in the 1930s which, whilst momentarily unpleasant, had the upside of granting her with eternal youth. Upon realising this she goes underground and attempts to live out the rest of her days as a librarian, clearly not watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (46) when it’s released and thus remaining unaware this makes her an OLD MAID and is therein a fate worse than death.

It’s doesn’t make any sense really, it’s not like she can read minds or turn people’s pets inside out when she sneezes or anything so one would be forgiven for thinking she may eventually realise she has something pretty useful to potentially offer mankind as it clearly occurred as a result of the happenstance of the accident, but she elects to stay in hiding of course until the strongest force in the universe, cosmic star-crossed love, pulls her away from reading every book ever read and threatens to undo everything she’s been trying to accomplish up until then, which admittedly wasn’t a great deal. Michiel Huisman plays the love interest and to be honest my proverbial hat goes off to anyone who can reliably pay attention to anything he says throughout the multiple dreary dates they go on as it all seems to translate into ‘I am merely saying the first thing that comes into my head right now to stop from salivating and I will do whatever it takes to get into your pants’ all of which is the fault of the writing rather than the performer but the pair have about as much chemistry as cohabitating inert gases.

Adaline herself seems to be of the same mind, and when her beau steals her address from the library so he can see her again and then turns up outside her flat she flips out at him – which was genuinely refreshing to see. Unfortunately though, she quickly changes her tune and ends up, literally, grovelling for his forgiveness. Hopeless. In any event, it becomes apparent that this particularly stale appetiser was simply lining the audience up for the main course, as acting heavyweight Harrison Ford enters the fray and the film then becomes a really good example of how one great actor on form can save everything else from the trash can. Suddenly there is a much deeper emotional connection and more bite to the romance. Lively plays the demure role she’s been given probably about as well as it was possible to do, and the movie is well shot with an appropriate sense of atmosphere, although it does contain one of the longest standing tropes of editing and directing which you will see coming a mile off, and although it’s a great shame there is such a lack of substance in major areas, enough is done by the end to at least claw back something of emotional value for the audience.