The Lady in the Van  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        12A

Alan Bennett adapts his stage play of the same name for the big-screen, and for the third time he enlists the help of director Nicholas Hytner to helm the project, after two previous successful adaptations of his work in the past – ‘The Madness of King George’ (94) and ‘The History Boys’ (06) with the cast of the latter all finding cameos here, bar Richard Griffiths who has sadly passed away since. Taking centre stage as the eponymous anti-hero is Maggie Smith, for whom this marks the third time she has embodied ‘lady in the van’ Mary Shepherd (having appeared as her onstage and in a radio adaptation), a homeless woman who parked her van on Bennett’s London street in the 1970s and then eventually ended up living in his driveway for the next fifteen years, after he befriended his unlikely neighbour.

The dichotomy of Bennett’s thoughts on the matter are represented to us onscreen by two versions of himself (each played by Alex Jennings) talking to each other and mulling over the rights and wrongs of the situation, whether or not he’s simply being used as a mug, and indeed whether or not he will eventually feel compelled to pen her life story or that of the curious happenstance of their friendship. However, it may well be a little darker than that – Bennett is clearly not exactly hard up at this time in his life, he was already a successful playwright and writer, and it’s impossible not to think he must have been able to do more to help, rather than sit back and complain about the growing public health concern on his doorstep. It’s perfectly possible he allowed the situation to develop precisely because it was an opportunity to garner new and original material, or observe the human condition from a unique vantage point but without getting too close, without giving her the spare room and a new set of clothes, for example, or helping her to find a home through the council.

Instead, the film charts what actually happened as Mary continues to live in her van almost like a human limpet attached to the side of Bennett’s drive, eternally surrounded by the stench of damp paper and faeces whilst being closely watched by those who want for nothing in a rich area of the capital, and as we learn more about her life prior to becoming homeless things don’t get any less dark, featuring betrayal by both nuns and family members who should have know better, all leading to a lifetime of nothing but Catholic guilt for a bedfellow and her prayers for sanctuary.

The acting from Smith is great as always and the tone is kept fairly light throughout to match the somewhat comic situation, but even this well intentioned artifice cannot cover up the depressive reality that permeates the entire film, leaving it as a fascinating but deeply sombre snapshot of modern day life that has us ask numerous questions of ourselves, as we wonder how secure our lives are and what we would do if confronted by a similar social problem.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse  (2015)    50/50

Rating :   50/100                                                                       93 Min        15

Woeful writing ruins what wasn’t a completely awful premise for a zombie comedy film. Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) are best friends and scouts who suddenly have to put everything they’ve learned whilst earning their badges into practice in order to try and survive their town being randomly overrun by zombies, although they appear to actually inaugurate the incursion by running over a deer near the beginning and somehow turning it into a member of the undead, which is at least original even if nothing much else in the film is.

Lame comedy, drama and character interplay are interspersed with loud jolts, as zombies pop up everywhere to irritatingly assault the senses, whilst the boys are the traditional fat kid, the one who thinks he’s way cooler than he is and the central straight guy in love with a girl he doesn’t know how to talk to. Precious little use of the theme and an all too traditional arc of ‘Scouts is lame … actually no, it’s pretty cool, and now I’ve realised how important our friendship really is’ leave this suffering from the same level of boredom as the likes of ‘Life After Beth‘ and ‘Warm Bodies‘. Although, as you can see from the pic above, Sarah Dumont in support does give teenage boys a pretty good reason to enjoy the film, not me you understand …

Burnt  (2015)    35/100

Rating :   35/100                                                                     101 Min        15

Adding somewhat to the title I feel compelled to usher this to its fiery doom after it champions one of the most vile central characters I’ve ever seen onscreen. The film is the third feature from director John Wells, after ‘The Company Men’ (10) and ‘August: Osage County‘, and stars Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones, a chef of almost mythic abilities who is returning to London after having previously abused every drug and woman going and burnt as many bridges as he could in the process. Only thing is, he’s still a massive twat, as we see when something doesn’t go his way at work and he goes apeshit at all the people he’d just brown-nosed to get to work for him, including physically grabbing and shoving poor Sienna Miller, who plays equally gifted sous-chef Helene. During the entire scene Cooper successfully portrays an intimidating psychopathic bully but you can see what looks like pain in his eyes at one point, as if he’s on the verge of tears at having to play out the particularly nasty scene.

Jones tells his cohorts you have to be arrogant to be in his kitchen, and the whole film has that vibe of defending arrogance and trying to say that for some people it’s necessary, but it’s a massive cop-out and this is how people like Jones gain power – by preying on the weak. You have to stand up to them right from the offset and put them in their place, but even then you’re probably looking at having to do the same thing again and again and again so long as they hold to arrogance being in any way and at any time a good thing, which long term is just too exhausting to be worthwhile, and films like this encourage that completely as we see the inevitable female that he’s abusing eventually fall for him – purely as she failed to stand up to him and allowed herself to be intimidated and, literally, pushed around. If someone less scary had tried it she would never have stood for it, like everyone else in the kitchen at the time, but acquiescence becomes justified by people telling themselves ‘they can handle him’ or all manner of untruths as they go through the emotional and chemical changes that result from moments of fear turning to moments of relaxation, as the danger passes and the bully becomes friendly or even complimentary again.

In reality though, it becomes an abusive relationship with the imprint of fear and dominance ever present and in the long run nothing good ever comes from that. Jones is chasing a third Michelin star, and this is supposed to be some sort of heroic quest that is on a par with life-and-death situations, when really it’s all about his ego and nothing more as all his vices are indeed glorified and the screenplay, quite accidentally, shows us that when things go wrong he behaves like a massive coward. There are hints of redemption, and similar ones of comeuppance, but the film reeks of poor writing throughout. Terrible movie, with reasonable acting from the likes of Miller in support but one that also remarkably manages to make even the food seem distant and alien, with too many fast-cut shots that were presumably meant to mirror life in a busy kitchen but would have been better taking cues from ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey‘ (although, bizarrely, Steven Knight wrote the screenplay for both films).

The Last Witch Hunter  (2015)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

The premise of this film: Vin Diesel is a warrior in the Middle Ages battling an especially powerful witch who curses him with immortality, then he lives through the centuries fighting witches and evil with sword and flame, with Michael Caine as his priestly mentor and guide. The Red Dragon: Sold. Immediately. It’s as fun and carefree as it sounds with some glorious special effects and a well paced storyline containing easy to like characters – shades of Batman with Caine’s role and some of the music used, but it works well. Afore long the plot takes us to the modern age and we learn witches are still amongst us, both good and evil, and that Diesel as the hunter Kaulder is a vital cog in the peace keeping machine operating between the covens and humanity.

Directed by Breck Eisner (‘Sahara’ 05, ‘The Crazzies’ 10) and written by Cory Goodman (‘Priest’ 11), Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (‘Dracula Untold‘), the story actually apparently came about after discussions with Diesel regarding one of his Dungeons and Dragons characters, a concept which I think is fantastic (have a read here for more on his gaming hobby). With Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Julie Engelbrecht in support – should certainly prove fun for fans of fantasy action.

Spectre  (2015)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     148 Min        12A

‘Spectre’ couldn’t really be more of a film for our times if it tried. Its shortcomings are frequently noticeable and include such cardinal sins as elements which are boring, flat, cheesy, stupid, and with numerous hammy moments for essentially all the characters. Although expectations were always going to be too high after Bond’s last outing, the wonderful ‘Skyfall‘, became the most successful British film of all time, I can nevertheless see Bond fans being fairly divided over this one.

This was aimed as the crowning jewel in the Daniel Craig (the actor currently playing Bond) era of films, linking the threads of the stories from ‘Casino Royale’ (06), ‘Quantum of Solace’ (08) and ‘Skyfall’ (12) with Bond’s traditional evil arch-enemy Spectre – the sinister organisation that dominated the early films, beginning with the first one in 1962, ‘Dr No.’ (SPECTRE was previously an acronym standing for ‘Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’), before intellectual property rights issues eventually seen it nosedive into a chimney, if memory serves. Here, there seems to be a reference put in to what must be every single Bond film prior to Spectre’s release, and it kind of feels like when your favourite TV series has a ‘recap’ episode and you feel cheated because you’ve already seen everything in it before.

It all takes a step backward from where the modern films had been correctly heading, with stunts becoming much less believable than before, well executed technically but nobody in their right mind would attempt them in the first place, as Bond shows shades of his ‘too cocky for his own good’ persona of the past, replete with cheesy terrible lines and a hard-on for wafer-thin female characters – in fact, it feels like someone was sitting with a checklist of what should be included in the ‘typical’ Bond film and they just went through it, there’s no real heart to the film, whereas in Skyfall we felt Bond was a real person, fighting real enemies in a reasonably believable manner, with real tension and consequences.

Sam Mendes has returned as director, alas no Roger Deakins as cinematographer this time (Hoyte van Hoytema as his replacement does a god job though), and there was initial praise for giving Monica Bellucci a role, for casting someone a little older than your average Bond girl – but she’s barely in it! You don’t cast Monica Bellucci and then give her a couple of brief moments onscreen during which she essentially just gets banged by the protagonist – indeed, she is expecting assassins to come for her at any second so Bond dutifully takes her clothes off and beds her, next scene she is sitting atop the bed wearing sexy lingerie, as if she thought ‘even though I’m waiting to be killed at any moment, let me change into this sexy outfit I’ve been wanting to show off for ages before you go’, and then Bond tells her not to worry as he’s contacting Felix Leiter for her, who will presumably also take some time in being able to offer her any form of protection.

This ungrounded feeling to the writing continues throughout: we see a bad guy growing a conscience because women and children are involved although we can infer from what we already know that this cannot possibly be a sudden realisation but rather a blasé convenience, ‘The Dark Knight’ (08) references abound with bad guys talking about ‘aggressive expansion’ and something the villains do at the end which seems completely out of the blue as if several scenes are missing as in many other parts of the film, and, most terrible of all, the main villain Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz) has been scrubbed and battered with an unhealthy amount of soap-opera, someone that should be terrifying and brilliant, or at least believable, comes across as anything but that, with Waltz miscast in a role that needed a much more intricate and daring treatment to work.

Having said that, the same plot ingredients, including Oberhauser, done in different ways could have worked out, but they needed a much smarter, involving and less self-referential final product. Mendes has his ‘Touch of Evil’ (58) moment with the opening scene all filmed in one continuous shot until the action begins (also likely inspired by last year’s best picture winner ‘Birdman‘) and this section of the film works really well, with the music memorably setting the tone amongst the wonderful backdrop of the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival in Mexico City, and it’s likely this will be the scene most remembered, although stylistically it’s not the only highlight and certainly a fight later on aboard a train also stands out for its bleak and uncompromising brutality.

The movie works far better on IMAX than on a standard screen (IMAX doesn’t always make a big difference) and after three sittings and an initial disappointment it does become easier to appreciate it and also to enjoy the numerous wonderful visuals that Mendes and Hoytema have dotted the film with (there’s even a location very reminiscent of the PC game ‘Riven’ for those familiar with it). Writing this just over a week after the terror attacks on Paris and Beirut (I notice the BBC have barely bothered to report on the latter incidentally) it’s impossible not to see numerous correlations between many of the plot elements and recent events – global intelligence agencies quickly announced they are going to work more closely together and share information, for example, just as they do in the film, indeed you do have to question a strategy from fundamentalists trying to retain physical territory in the Middle East that effectively unites the entire world against them, and notwithstanding the plot of Spectre one hopes that this united spirit will ultimately be a great and defining thing for the twenty-first century, although, ironically, this idea also brings us back to the plot of the film.

Just as 9/11 inspired a more gritty Bond with ‘Casino Royale’, so too will the plot for Bond 25 reflect recent events, and with both Britain and France announcing a recruitment drive for the intelligence services the world really is looking for more real-life Bonds, as well as heroism from the public in situations where help simply isn’t going to arrive on time – such as that displayed by Adel Termos, who sprung on a suicide bomber during the Beirut attacks resulting in an early detonation and preventing the scores or perhaps even hundreds of deaths that would have arisen if the bomber had been allowed to reach his intended target. Watching ‘Spectre’ display its wonderful locations from around the globe: Mexico City, Austria, London, Morocco, Rome, and pondering the reality now that everyone is united against a common enemy – life and creation vs pointless death, one is suddenly struck by just how romantic and hopeful a concept that truly is.

Dave Bautista plays henchman villain Mr Hinx, with Léa Seydoux as primary Bond girl Madeleine Swann in a role that, despite Seydoux having a lot of onscreen presence and being one of the best things in the movie, remains rather in servitude of Bond and his desires. Interestingly, all the best Bond movies for me had, well, good writing generally, but real female characters that were original and existed in their own right rather than as thinly veiled pieces of apparel for the protagonist – for anyone not familiar with the films I’d recommend, in order of their release, ‘Dr No.’, ‘From Russia with Love’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Thunderball’, ‘On Her Majesties Secret Service’, ‘Live and Let Die’, ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, ‘Goldeneye’ (slight nostalgia for the N64 game on this one), ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Skyfall’, although some of the others had their moments too.

Curiously, the plot for ‘Spectre’ is also remarkably similar to a certain other big release from earlier this year, it often happens in the industry for one reason or another, although confidential emails relating to ‘Spectre’ were put into the public domain during the Sony hack, did any of them contain plot details? Hmm …

The theme song ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ from Sam Smith kind of sums up the film – you can see what it could have been and what the aim was, but the execution is off in too many important places. ‘Spectre’ works well as an homage to the franchise and as a culturally relevant piece of filmmaking, but as a stand-alone, artful, involving, believable and clever action film in the vein of Skyfall … not so much.

Spectre2

Suffragette  (2015)    0/100

Rating :   0/100            COMPLETE INCINERATION           106 Min        12A

Goodness, where to begin to with this one. Well, let’s start with the popular advertising poster:

Suffragette

As we can see from this, Meryl Streep is very much posited as one of the key actors in the film. She isn’t. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement who campaigned and brutally fought for women to have the vote, the suffrage, in Britain from the latter half of the nineteenth century until some women were eventually granted it in 1918 (and some more men, they didn’t have universal suffrage back then either) and then all women over 21 in 1928. As Em. Pankhurst, one could be forgiven for thinking she would indeed feature heavily in the movie, as it is though she has one scene giving a speech from a balcony which has very obviously and very poorly been dubbed in a sound studio, and then she scarpers, stopping briefly to tell protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to keep up the good fight. It’s a cameo role, pure and simple, and thusly amounts to false advertising to sell a product which outside of the UK would appear to be a rather dismal, po faced and low-key film, which, actually, it is.

Secondly, again looking at the poster, ‘The Time is Now’, well, ‘The Time was Then’, surely? Coupled with the realisation the central character and the majority of events are purely fictional, we suddenly realise this is a film with a very skewed agenda at its heart, as we are shown that every man in Maud’s life is a total shitbag and she’s been sexually abused by her boss in the past at work, and there was of course seemingly nothing she could do about it, or perhaps she was willing then and now she’s angry at his attentions turning to someone younger – we are left to wonder, as she goes on to, quite by chance, end up meeting the Prime Minister and joining the suffragette movement with very little understanding of anything about it, rather she comes to realise that all men are pigs, and by extension the movie is really trying to imply the same is as true now as it was then.

We see, for example, the same lewd and abusive boss talk down to her, and in response she crushes his hand with a red-hot iron in front of everyone – a pretty serious assault despite the guy being a creep, but the police make a deal with her to let it go if she helps rat out the movement, which she initially agrees to then immediately reneges on, but the incident is mysteriously simply forgotten about. I remember studying the suffragette movement many years ago and although the details have long since faded nothing in this film bar the most famous of incidents shown, such as Emily Davison (Natalie Press) throwing herself to her death in front of the King’s horse, ring true. The acting from Mulligan is fine with less than inspiring support work around her, but even without the lack of any real audience connection with the material the film is flat and unrealistic throughout, notwithstanding the occasional moment of sympathy for families being torn apart, and this comes as no surprise given it’s directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, whose last film together, ‘Brick Lane‘, was largely shunned and protested against by the very people it was supposed to be representing.

Historically, it’s one of a number of periods in the twentieth century that form a continuous narrative of groups struggling for their democratic and human rights and their varied approach to that struggle, and indeed it was high time a film was made about the suffragettes, but this is just unforgivable. The audience are led to believe that it was the suffragettes themselves that essentially gained the vote for women, which is an enormous simplification of the issue – politically it’s unthinkable that women weren’t going to get the vote in the UK as it had already been enacted in other democratic countries, it was just a question of how and when, and ultimately after the united effort of British women on the home front during World War I, taking over all the jobs vacated by the men off fighting, the first stages of legislation were passed to grant some women the suffrage, almost as a way to say thank you as much as a recognition that it was increasingly unjustifiable and, frankly, stupid not too.

However, that too is misleading given the suffragettes had been running around blowing things up, acts of terrorism which don’t traditionally make it easy for a government to acquiesce to your demands, there was no doubt an element of ‘perfect, we can use this and move on from it’ as well as opportunistic politicians hoping to gain from the extension of the public franchise, and it’s certainly arguable that the movement actually hindered their cause, successfully raising public awareness of the issue but also painting it in a strongly negative light.

Which leads nicely on to what I perceive to be the agenda of the film itself, which has nothing to do with the past but rather the fact that actresses in the film industry in America, and I think perhaps in the UK too although there are less public details about that, are currently up in arms about the lack of pay parity between the sexes, which has apparently been going on since the very beginning of the industry and yet they’ve never thought to do anything about it. This does seem to be a real problem, with no shortage of evidence being released this year alone to support it, however it really is their problem – do they really expect the public to care that they only get X million instead of Y million? Aware of this lack of public support, you occasionally see the debate being appropriated by people who should know better and who try to package the thing as ‘actually all women in the West are being victimised and held back by mysterious faceless white men in their forties who control everything including your brains’ and thus their struggle is actually your struggle.

This, I believe, is the real reason the film has been made and has been done as poorly and misguidedly as it has. Sorry to ruin it for the filmmakers but women in the UK have equal rights under law, and if someone were to be sexually discriminated against in the workplace, or paid less than a male for doing the same job, then there are fairly robust legal procedures they can utilise. Another constant gripe you hear in the industry is that there aren’t enough films with female central characters (which is rubbish by the way) and especially historical ones – well here was the perfect chance, and what did they elect to do instead? Create a fiction against an ‘historical backdrop’ robbing the movie of any real meaning with their creation of whimsy and prejudice because to actually make it a proper historical film, they would actually have to go and do some real work, Heaven forbid.

Ah, but if they managed to persuade large numbers of women to watch and endorse the film, partly by riling them up against this mystical modern oppression in order to get more ticket sales and thusly improve their box office potential as female filmmakers, then this, potentially, could allow them to negotiate better pay deals with studios. In effect, they want you the public to sort out their problems by giving them your money, and they’ve designed this rather insidious project just for that purpose. It’s incredible, why don’t they just strike like everyone else? The writers in Hollywood went on strike over pay several years back and brought the system to its knees. They moan and moan and moan and yet do nothing to actually tackle the issue – presumably they have to be a part of the same union in order to act in Hollywood, since the industry cannot survive without actresses, and since fair pay is in every woman’s interests (and every man’s as well ultimately), then surely a one hundred percent withdrawal of services until better independent watchdogs or standards could be put in place would be successful?

Ironically, much like the women in the film, their tactics are more likely to simply get other people’s backs up, people who may have agreed and supported them otherwise, and indeed there is little acknowledgement of the nature of individual clients negotiating their own prices or producers having the right to pay whatever they are willing to pay etc. nor the role sex appeal can play in bankability, but when you have Amanda Seyfried reportedly finding out she got paid ten percent of what her male co-star got paid, at a time when both were equivalent box office draws and had similar sized parts, and Keira Knightley getting paid roughly half the amount Orlando Bloom did for the third Pirates film (the difference was presumably for acting lessons) it’s clear something is badly wrong somewhere.

A few days ago, a report was headlined on the BBC news that women in the UK are paid 19% less than men. A typical attention grabbing headline that was shot to pieces when the details were eventually gone into, such as that figure including part-time workers – when adjusted for full-time work the percentage dropped to 9% and the primary reason for the difference appeared to simply be the low numbers of women working in many of the highest paid sectors, engineering for example, with no data on why that was the case. This was delivered by one of the women behind the study who gleefully began her interview by stating women outperformed men at all levels in secondary education, something which sounds a little dubious but along with the distinct lack of any real science all but ruined the reports credibility. This is very typical of late; gender roles, parity and feminism have become enormous hooks for the British media to report on, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s when they don’t have anything else to say, and very rarely are any real arguments or facts presented but rather the whole caboodle is forcibly inserted into every issue and thrust upon every film that’s released.

In interviews for the release of this film, Streep had a go at review website Rotten Tomatoes for not representing enough female critics and thus providing, she argued, a skewed consideration of film in favour of a male point of view. Garbage. Rotten Tomatoes has very strict criteria to reach before you can be a part of it, and it’s simply the case that not enough female critics reach this criteria, it cannot possibly be the fault of the site itself unless corruption is involved and I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that – and frankly I find the idea of films for men and films for women absolutely disgusting, so it really oughtn’t to matter what gender the critic is. I know just as many women who love ‘Die Hard’, ‘Sin City’ and classic westerns as I do men who love ‘Twilight’, ‘Grease’ and ‘Dirty Dancing’. Similarly, Romola Garai, who plays Alice Haughton in the film, decided to announce her career was being hampered by the lack of childcare facilities at work for her. Wow, imagine if every workplace in the land suddenly had to provide a crèche for their employees, or rather their children, to use. Ironically, numerous studios might actually have the space and money to provide a supervised crèche which would be great for everyone on-set, so despite her implication of discrimination she has hit on a pretty decent suggestion.

Finally, one of the most telling elements of the cynical absolute nonsense behind this film is the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as one of the main suffragettes. In real-life she is close friends with British Prime Minister David Cameron (herself descended from former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who also features in this film coincidentally) the leader of the Conservative party who not only have traditionally been against votes for women (many feared it would lead to universal suffrage for men, thus the working man whom the Conservatives punish) but also votes for anyone that takes power away from them, against equal rights for everyone unless they have money (they are at present attempting to annul the Human Rights Act, which the British public seem to be largely unawares of), and they are trying to make it more difficult for people to exercise their right to strike fairly, and Cameron himself is personally responsible for introducing measures that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of poor and disabled people up and down the country whilst giving himself and the wealthy tax cuts, and they are even redrawing the political map to give themselves a bigger share of the seats next election.

Bonham Carter has publicly endorsed Cameron, and thus the party, saying what a nice guy he is – her choosing to be in this film is a sick joke since she is joined at the hip with the right wing of British politics. Her message is vote Conservative girls, and who profits from this? Why, she does of course, and her aristocratic rich friends – she ironically gave her support to the domestic violence campaign group ‘Sisters Uncut’, who were protesting against the film at its premiere after cuts to domestic violence services, saying “I’m glad our film has done something. That’s exactly what it’s there for.” – who is responsible for the cuts? David Cameron. At a time when a film encouraging people to vote and engage in politics would have been a good idea, this has been hijacked by all the wrong people.

Crimson Peak  (2015)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                     119 Min        15

Visually rich and well acted but lacking in almost every other department, Guillermo del Toro’s latest after ‘Pacific Rim‘ is a fairly traditional take on the horror genre with a 19th century haunted house mystery, except pointless gore predominates where there ought to be suspense and, critically, the entire premise is undermined by poor writing from the very offset. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the virginal, one presumes, young beauty about to come to the attention of one Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and the cardinal sin of the screenplay is that it lets us know these two are up to no good all the way through, with nothing about their ultimate purpose proving to be very interesting nor surprising.

The sets and costumes are impressive enough, and as with the director’s other work he has overly committed to the aesthetic, albeit successfully, whilst not paying nearly enough attention to the storytelling (he was joined by Matthew Robbins for the screenplay). Everything simply plods along delivering nothing we haven’t seen before, apart from perhaps ghosts with all their flesh still on but minus the skin, simply for ‘shock’ value, all dancing around the loose thread of the siblings trying to mine the grounds around their crumbling English manor for the lucrative minerals in the earth surrounding it, and travelling to the States in the beginning to petition Edith’s business magnate father for investment. Fans of both horror and del Toro are likely to be disappointed, although the latter probably won’t completely hate it at least.

Paranormal Activity : The Ghost Dimension  (2015)    46/100

Rating :   46/100                                                                       88 Min        15

Could have been one of the better instalments in the Paranormal Activity horror franchise, alas it’s just rubbish again, although thankfully it’s been announced as the last one they’ll do despite ironically setting up a decent plot thread for sequels. Following on from the previous ‘The Marked Ones‘, this is film number six and to be honest I wasn’t especially aware, despite having seen them all, that the series features the same characters in different time frames and locations, alarmingly highlighting the ubiquitous poor scripting. Here, some new cannon fodder are introduced, in a modern setting of 2013, who find recordings of the anchors for the overarching plot – sisters Katie and Kristi Ray, shortly after the events of part 3 while they were still kids, and an eerie conduit between the past and present is instigated by a malevolent spirit that plagues the new family of three, plus their two friends that are staying over to make up the numbers.

The basic story is actually fine and builds up something potentially interesting with people that are almost likeable for this kind of film – indeed, the rather attractive wife (Brit Shaw) comes onscreen to enliven things slightly before a distinct moment of ‘Jesus Christ!’ as her even hotter friend (Olivia Taylor Dudley), looking like a young, petite and very well endowed Patricia Arquette, saunters into shot – but precious little is made of them, either as characters, plot devices or eye candy.

Instead, the film suffers the same repetitive fate as its predecessors wherein the screenplay sets up various set-piece scares, and everything else in-between makes no sense, such as adults filming their daughter being visited by evil spirits in the night rather than really doing anything about it, and it’s nigh on impossible for a film to pull off being scary and dumb at the same time. Also with Chris J. Murray, Dan Gill and Ivy George as the youngster in need of better parents.

The Program  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     103 Min        15

Ben Foster gives the performance of his career as disgraced former cycling champ Lance Armstrong. I love how you always see that now – it’s quite an achievement to almost religiously have the word ‘disgraced’ precede your name, and this film focuses on showing exactly how that came to be, detailing how Armstrong actually operated his massive scam on the doping agency in cycling and indeed the public in general, with the secondary narrative of Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who is ever suspecting and follows closely on the athlete’s heels with his hunch that something isn’t quite right (the film is based on Walsh’s 2012 novel, ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’).

It’s from director Stephen Frears, his latest film after the Oscar nominated ‘Philomena‘, and despite never personally following the sport I found the story fascinating throughout. Foster not only physically commits himself by undergoing multiple transformations, as we see him go through different physical approaches to cycling as well as his cancer ordeal (do we know if he really had cancer? He probably had like a sore throat or something), but he actually looks a lot like Armstrong to boot. His personal life is very much marginalised here, and the whole affair is a good companion piece to ‘Bigger Stronger Faster‘ which was a great exploration of doping in sports generally.

Armstrong was of course famously stripped of all his Tour de France titles, but, ironically, if everyone else was also doping then you could say he still won fairly. Rather, perhaps, the sport should be stripped of its competition. With Denis Ménochet, Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons and, briefly, Dustin Hoffman in support.

The Lobster  (2015)    81/100

Rating :   81/100                       Treasure Chest                     118 Min        15

Easily one of the best films of the year, and indeed one so stylistically reminiscent of the equally great ‘Dogtooth’ (09) that it comes as no surprise to learn that it’s from the same creative team – Greek writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, with Lanthimos once again handling the directing duties. It’s a satirical black comedy examining relationships and the pressure and scrutiny society can put on them, as we watch a committedly overweight Colin Farrell check into a hotel after recently becoming single, a hotel where the guests must successfully pair up with another person or be turned into the animal of their choice and where, to gain extra days in the complex, reality TV style, they go out hunting loners in the forest with tranquillizer guns. Need I say more?

At its heart, the movie explores the concept of sameness, of bonding through commonality and the desire to adapt to become more alike, whether through love or desperation. The idea is wonderful and the filmmakers deliver what is by no means a frequent experience – the feeling that you are actually watching a film; you’re relaxed and yet immersed and slightly excited about the story, aware that you’re being entertained and equally so that this is really what you’re supposed to feel like in the cinema. The acting from everyone is fantastic, with the most recognisable faces being John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Michael Smiley, Ashley Jensen, Rachel Weisz and the lovely Jessica Barden (as nosebleed woman) all with Farrell as the central focus who is nothing short of brilliant, with flashes of his comedic talent displayed in 2008’s ‘In Bruges’ despite playing a much more demure character. It loses a little steam in the final third, but nevertheless one not to be missed.