Self/less  (2015)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     117 Min        12A

An odd film from director Tarsem Singh (‘The Cell’ 2000, ‘The Fall’ 06, ‘Immortals’ 11, ‘Mirror Mirror’ 12) and writers David and Alex Pastor, concerning the invention of a method by which one person’s consciousness can be transferred from their body into that of another. The film opens with Damian Hayes (Ben Kingsley) thinking about undergoing the expensive and highly secret procedure; the cancer that his body is riddled with having metastasised and left him with mere months to live. Deciding he’d rather not die, his soul and mind are plonked into a much younger, fitter body (that of Ryan Reynolds), a body he has been told was built in a lab with no prior mind of its own. Afterward, Damian finds if he doesn’t take his regular medication, given to him by the set-up’s organiser Prof. Albright (Matthew Goode), strange and compelling visions begin to dance before him, although he is told it’s nothing to worry about …

The potential for discussion on life, death and the morals of humanity falls completely flat here, so in a sense the central story doesn’t deliver where it should, and indeed there is an awful lot of slow padding before what we know must eventually happen does – but at this point Singh begins to put together some really well-staged action sequences and the film picks up considerably. Ultimately, Reynolds and Goode manage to anchor what evolves into a fairly enjoyable action film, although further mishaps do arise surrounding the writing of the main female character and alas also her portrayal by Natalie Martinez. A film whose secondary aspects deliver enough to save it from complete annihilation, but don’t expect anything approaching the complete package here.

A brief interview with Singh on what he has learned about the art of directing over the years:

Ant-Man  (2015)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                     117 Min        12A

Marvel Studios’ worst release since ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (08) and presumably directly suffering from the project’s departure of the person who founded it, Edgar Wright, shortly before production began in earnest. Wright had been working on an Ant-Man screenplay for many, many years (along with his writing partner Joe Cornish) and had finally been given the go-ahead from Marvel but, citing creative differences, he left the project (although given they both worked on the screenplay for ‘Tintin‘ I’m not wholly convinced this was a bad thing). Taking his place to alter and finish the script were Adam McKay (‘Step Brothers’ 08, ‘The Other Guys’ 10) and Paul Rudd, the latter of whom plays the titular superhero himself, and it is the story that really lets the film down. Peyton Reed (‘Yes Man’ 08, ‘The Break-Up’ 06) also filled Wright’s shoes as director.

We can predict exactly what will happen, how it will happen, when it will happen, and what all of the details concerned will be. Even for a superhero film this is remarkably two dimensional, and again for the genre it’s also really difficult to suspend our disbelief enough to get behind it fully. Rudd plays ex-con Scott Lang who is just out of jail and determined to help support his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose stepfather is a cop of course, but finds getting a normal job with his record next to impossible. Opting to do another heist with his mates, played by Michael Peña, T.I. and David Dastmalchian (who seems to have gone to great lengths to disguise his identity as the Joker’s patsy in ‘The Dark Knight’ 08), he enters into the world of tech genius Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly – almost unrecognisable with a new bobbed jet black hair style); all of which sees him don a suit which can shrink a human to the size of an ant and back again at will, but he must use it to steal a competitor’s prototype before they can use it for nefarious purpose (there’s a very dubious ownership element regarding the powers, much like the screenplay, which is part of the movie’s problem).

As such, it is pretty much the same story as ‘Iron Man’ (08) with two pillars of the same company fighting each other for control of the same invention, leading to the inevitable punch-up at the end. An attempt at comedy has been made but it’s all far too simple and usually revolves around the same constantly regurgitated joke. The effects and the acting are fine but it just gets really, really dull, although it should certainly keep a younger audience fully entertained. There is both a mid-credits scene and a post credits one as well, the latter apparently taken from the next Captain America film no less (‘Ant-Man’ marks the end of ‘Phase Two’ in Marvel’s cinematic universe – ‘Captain America : Civil War’ will start ‘Phase Three’ sometime next year). Also with Corey Stoll as the villain (also bald like in Iron Man, coincidence?) as well as Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale in support.

True Story  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                       99 Min        15

The dramatisation of Michael Finkel’s memoir of the same name based on his utterly bizarre experiences with Christian Longo, who was arrested in 2002 whilst falsely using Finkel’s identity in Mexico. At the time, Longo had briefly made the FBI’s ten most wanted list and was subsequently remanded in custody under suspicion of having murdered his wife and three young children. Finkel was, until shortly before these events, a respected New York Times journalist, up until one of his articles was proven to have contained false information, but he is thusly thrust into the strange circumstances and agrees to write his book based on Longo and the interviews he conducts with him in prison.

The film stars James Franco as Longo, with Jonah Hill as Finkel and Felicity Jones as his girlfriend. The central performances are both very good, and the progression in the dynamic of their relationship and the corresponding variations in their acting are spot on – Jones is predominantly in the background although her character plays an important role in terms of the screenplay; interesting to know if this element was true to real life or not. Where the film is let down, however, is with the relative inexperience of director Rupert Goold who fails to create any lasting tension and punctuates the narrative with lulls in momentum. We can see what he was trying to do, much like in a scene staged at dusk such that sunlight streams in diffuse bands from just behind a hut in the background and at moments it looks very nice, but equally the rays cut in and out of shot which is really distracting to the viewer.

The actors just manage to hold interest up until Longo’s trial, and there the actual story kicks in and the real impact of events can be felt. Ultimately memorable despite never reaching the levels of drama that it perhaps ought to have done.

The Gallows  (2015)    35/100

Rating :   35/100                                                                       81 Min        15

Buddies Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing both wrote and directed this and one hopes they had a good time in the process as it’s highly unlikely anyone else is going to whilst watching their final product – a handheld horror film that couldn’t be any less artful if it tried. All set in a high school where a school play, ‘The Gallows’, went tragically awry in the nineties and one of the performers ended up actually being hung. Seeming to forget this incident, the school decide to put on the same play again in the present day, and when four of the kids get stuck inside the building late at night, three of them having been intent on sabotaging the sets because they’re little shits, questions of supernatural evil and the spirit of the deceased haunting the school begin to arise …

It doesn’t bode well for a handheld film when the person mostly behind the camera is incredibly annoying, and here he is joined by the obligatory couple of girls with sweaty uplifted cleavages and scares no more original than a camera looking one way before turning around and back again to reveal something new in view of the lens – at one point the camera sits by itself at rest for a moment and then one of the main characters purposefully jumps in front of it to surprise the audience. That’s the level of entertainment you’re looking at here. The story and concept aren’t completely terrible but what they’ve done with it, simply put, is. Starring Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos and Cassidy Gifford as the central four that get mired in bad acting and screenwriting.

This song isn’t in the film, but I’ve had it in my head since watching it nonetheless. And now you can too ….

Love and Mercy  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     121 Min        12A

Biopic of the life of Beach Boys member and key song writer Brian Wilson, told as a dramatic interpretation in two different time frames – the first with Paul Dano as a youthful Wilson in the sixties just beginning to establish himself creatively and struggling to convince the others of the need to outgrow their initial pop hits, and the second with John Cusack portraying him as a deeply troubled adult who’s life is dominated by the attentions of his almost live-in psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) whilst he tries to embark on a romantic relationship with serendipitous car sales rep Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Both performers have done a really great job of identifying with that period of Wilson’s life – especially true for Cusack who throws in a number of clever nuances here and there, with Banks and Giamatti predictably good in their supporting roles too. As you might imagine, Beach Boys tracks feature heavily throughout (though composer Atticus Ross has often rearranged the wealth of original material they had access to, using their music to subtly create something unique for the film), including their enduring ‘God Only Knows’ and it’s fascinating seeing the negative and damaging reaction that Wilson gets from his father, and one time manager, regarding the song which would go on to become significant to so many people. Indeed, I used to have a young lass tied up in my dungeon for whom the song was the most important in her life. She likely has a different interpretation of it now, but nevertheless the film manages to take a lot of these music industry clichés: familial opposition, drugs, not appreciated in own time etc., and put them into a narrative that not only neatly absorbs them but also makes you appreciate them anew with a compelling story and a sympathetic main character.

The balance between each timeline is perfect and it really tells that director Bill Pohlad (more usually known as a producer on such films as ‘12 Years a Slave‘ and ‘Into the Wild’ 07) was determined to tell a real, accurate story with precious little in the way of embellishment. Indeed, the film has been heralded by all as remarkably true to events and if anything it seems to make the villainous characters seem nicer than they were in real life. All of which makes ‘Love and Mercy’ (the title coming from the opening track of Wilson’s debut solo album) not only a great film, but a sterling example of what biographies and historical films should be trying to achieve.

Ted 2  (2015)    49/100

Rating :   49/100                                                                     115 Min        15

Underwhelmed by the first Ted? Then you’ll despise this, writer/director/actor Seth MacFarlane’s sequel to his 2012 hit comedy featuring the talking and foul mouthed Boston teddy bear. Ted (MacFarlane) ties the knot with Tami-Lynn but finds marital bliss takes a little work – though he is faring miles better than his buddy John (Mark Wahlberg) who is now divorced from his beau last time round (Mila Kunis probably realising the script for this one was awful) and is now spending most of his time watching porn and smoking weed. Indeed, an inordinately large amount of the focus of the movie is on weed, so much so that it goes past the sake of comedy or character traits or story and enters the egotistical realm of a filmmaker glorifying the thing in an effort to appear hip but limiting the film’s appeal in the process. Some of the jokes are funny but the majority are too gratingly infantile and many were spoiled by the trailer, although the movie’s cardinal sin is that an enormous chunk of it is taken up with Ted fighting a legal case to try and set precedent for his human rights in law despite being non-human. It’s really, really tedious (ahem), and not in the least bit funny, nor does it function effectively as allegory so the majority of the film is simply time wasted even if you love MacFarlane’s comedy. With Amanda Seyfried as John’s obligatory new love interest.

Amy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     128 Min        15

The latest documentary from director Asif Kapadia follows in the footsteps of ‘Senna‘ with another collage of primary source material, this time used to portray the life and tragic death of jazz singer Amy Winehouse. There is a stylistic difference between the two films in that with Senna the majority of the material was filmed whilst Ayrton Senna was already in the spotlight and aware cameras were rolling, whereas here a lot of the footage used was filmed among Amy and her friends before she hit the big time, no one presumably imagining many people, if anyone at all, was ever going to view it, so in a sense you are getting a snapshot of what someone might be like, but you’re also at times seeing someone doing the kind of random things anyone might do if a camera was suddenly thrust in front of their face.

Despite being about a completely different personality, this is thematically quite similar to Senna in that there’s an underpinning narrative of destruction with a heavy dosage of blame lain at the feet of the industry and a world that she was propelled into by the popularity of her music. Arguably, there is an unavoidable dismissive initial reaction to the scenario from a neutral perspective, given the well publicised story of another young musician whose life is dragged ever downward by drugs and fame until an all but inevitable early death. Tragic, but also a cliché and with a strong element of self annihilation. The film does successfully allay some of this by showing a tortured and talented soul with some fairly villainous influences on her life, indeed one of said villains gets arrested at one point for perverting the course of justice but we never find out what they actually did, which stands as a curious oversight.

Similarly, there is a degree of ambiguity over the role of Amy’s father, both in her life and in the film. He has appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire show on the BBC denouncing the film, and indeed he brought in transcripts to show that where the film has his voiceover saying Amy didn’t need rehab, it actually cuts out before he goes on to stipulate he meant at that point and that later on she absolutely did. We don’t get to see these transcripts in detail of course and I’m not sure it ultimately makes too much difference, although he shouldn’t have been cut off like that, as it does become quite difficult to sympathise with someone who invites a reality TV crew to film themselves with their daughter in St Lucia, against her wishes, whilst he is supposed to be there helping her to recover.

Neither is there any mention of the two year relationship she’d been in with film director Reg Traviss before she passed away, but the pivotal role her marriage played in events is shown in great detail and just as Senna ended with a line meant to give you something to take away from the film, so too do we here learn from her bodyguard that right before her death she’d admitted if she could sacrifice all her singing ability in order to simply be able to walk down the street without being harassed by the paparazzi, then she would. Indeed, we see multiple scenes where she is severely hounded by the press and it’s no surprise at all it took its toll on her.

I never really got into her music, partly because I found it really difficult to make out the lyrics – and the film seems to at least partly acknowledge this problem by showing us subtitles every time she sings, which was a great idea as it’s a prime opportunity to showcase the poetry of her work, and the songs play alongside the chapters of her life in the film that they relate to. We also see a number of illuminations as to her no nonsense approach to interviews which often proves quite endearing – perhaps chiefly when onstage at the Grammys and she hears the album titles of her competitors read out, disdainfully remarking ” ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’? Did he really call his album that?” in reference to Justin Timberlake. Most amusing.

There is a suggestion that chunks of important material and information are missing, but the film nevertheless rehumanises a person that the media too often milked as a cash cow and Kapadia is once again successful in delivering his intentional exposé of the sort of dangerous and destructive world that the modern public eye can be.

Magic Mike XXL  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     115 Min        15

I did have concerns about this when the film started and I realised I was the only male in the audience (the story focusing on the world of erotic male dancers as it does) – the original ‘Magic Mike’ (2012) was directed by Steven Soderbergh and I remember it as one of his typically intimate films rather than something that could have easily degenerated into flashy nonsense. Soderbergh did at least stay on to produce the sequel and although Matthew McConaughey is absent this time around, leading man Channing Tatum (whose autobiographical tale the first film was, having been a stripper in real life before beginning his film career) returns to reprise the titular role, along with his crew Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), and director Gregory Jacobs manages to keep the film very true to the feel of the original, albeit with a screenplay less drama heavy than before (Jacobs’ long standing experience as Soderbergh’s assistant director, including on ‘Magic Mike’, no doubt has a lot to do with this).

Mike is lured back to the adrenaline fuelled world of stripping off in front of hordes of flustered, aroused women (there were reputedly close to a thousand female extras used for the final scenes) for wads of cash and assumed fringe benefits (to be fair, he didn’t require much persuasion), tempted away from his carpentry business for one last trip with the Kings of Tampa to compete at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. It sounds like another ‘Step Up’ film but the narrative is well balanced between really well choreographed and superbly delivered dance sequences, on and off stage, and believable scenes of camaraderie with moments of reflection as they all take stock of where their lives are heading. A solid amount of comedy, great performances and some fantastic individual scenes easily make this the match of its predecessor – be prepared for a lot of dancing led from the hips and not always aimed there shall we say. With support from Amber Heard, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Glover. The current ratings discrepancy on the IMDB between the genders is also quite amusing, seems you mortals are easily intimidated by size …

Terminator Genisys  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     126 Min        12A

Surprisingly good. I say surprisingly as I don’t think anyone seriously believed this was going to be anything other than terrible, in part due to the continual decline of the franchise beginning with ‘Terminator 3’ in 2003 but also thanks to an atrocious trailer for this instalment, one which did have the boon of lowering expectations but also critically blows several key moments in the film so I would strongly advise against viewing it if possible, though this may indeed be difficult given its appearance on multitudes of high profile websites right now. It should have been the easiest thing in the world to create an exciting teaser for what is not only the return of one of the most famous franchises of all time but also a film that reunites it with its principal star – Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s face made a digital appearance in ‘Terminator : Salvation’ (09) but who was otherwise absent from the film which he himself describes with: ‘It sucked!’. An accurate, if somewhat succinct, critique.

It’s very apparent here that director Alan Taylor (‘Thor : The Dark World‘) and writers Laeta Kalogridis (‘Shutter Island’ 10, ‘Night Watch’ 04) and Patrick Lussier (long term horror editor, on the ‘Scream’ franchise amongst others) have a lot of reverence for ‘The Terminator’ (84) and ‘Terminator 2 : Judgement Day’ (91) and I think fans of those two pretty fantastic films are going to appreciate the constant one eye kept on the roots of the story. Indeed, hopes were raised for Genisys by none other than the series founder and director of the first two films – James Cameron, who enjoyed this interpretation and has said he regards it as good enough to stand as the legitimate next part in the story following on from T2 (and thus annihilating everything between then and now, presumably including the TV series ‘The Sarah Conner Chronicles’ 08-09).

The story … actually, I shan’t say anything about the story as most of it is meant to be a surprise and I assume everyone knows the basic premise from the others, wherein machines take over in the near future (originally in 1997) and nuke the Earth (despite being great films, in terms of sci-fi there are obvious weaknesses – they take out humans and then … what? The machines have no real purpose when you think about it, they can produce more of themselves but with no discernible emotions or pleasurable senses or threats of any kind by that point, including that of ageing, why bother?), but humanity persists and both sides send warriors back in time to variously slay/protect the mother of the future resistance leader and perhaps prevent him from ever being born.

The core concept doesn’t exactly speak very highly of humanity given it seems people are not only stupid enough to let the world’s first AI play around with nuclear toys but there too only exists one mortal capable of adequately fighting back, never mind the multi-faceted space-time conflicts which immediately arise, but none of that gets in the way of a fun story and, following in the modern blockbuster tradition, this is very much the focus here. Indeed, you can well imagine the writers thinking ‘hmm, does that make sense? What about this, and that, and … O let’s just get on with it. Actually, let’s throw this in as well, why not’.

In this central aspect the film is a hit and, although there are probably a few too many one-liners, the cast, comprised of Arnie, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney and J.K. Simmons, all carry the film really well – in particular Emilia Clarke who is nothing short of fantastic as Sarah Conner (possibly getting tips from her ‘Game of Thrones’ co-star Lena Headey who played Sarah in the TV series). This focus on the ride, though, does mean opportunities for more atmospheric tension and scenes with a heavier sense of build-up have been missed and it is a shame a blend of the two approaches wasn’t attempted. However, given the dreary duds that fans have been greeted with over the last twenty years this is a deserving shot in the arm for the series – there’s a brief post credits scene too after the iconic music, from composer Brad Fiedel, finishes playing.

Some of the better marketing for the film at Madame Tussauds …