Carol  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     118 Min        15

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’ and adapted by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy in her feature debut, Todd Haynes (‘I’m Not There’ 07, ‘Far from Heaven’ 02) directs this tale of forbidden desire and romance set in the Big Apple in 1950 with an obvious loving devotion to the era and the setting, but it’s here that too much of the focus clearly lies, leaving his characters largely stifled and suffocating in all the hazy nostalgia. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young and uncertain shop assistant, too accustomed to saying yes to people, who one day lays eyes on the well-to-do and elegant Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who enters her store in search of a gift for her young daughter and encounters an instant lustful attraction between the two of them.

The initial sexual atmosphere prompts the pair to arrange a meeting but it actually largely disappears from there on in, appearing in intimate moments in the future but never really creating the tension that was set-up at the onset. Indeed, their first moment of real physical contact comes when Therese places a comforting hand on Carol’s shoulder and their fingers deliberately touch – but then the camera cuts out and we are taken to a scene later in the evening when they’re outside talking about family matters. That’s terrible, we really needed to see that scene play out, to see the reactions and the body language, to feel either tense and uncomfortable or excited, or to at least see each of the characters’ reaction to the touch, as it is we view the moment from behind as well so we know nothing and then it’s all gone, much like the romance and the libidinous exposition from the film.

There’s an element of the material having lost some relevance, what was perhaps written to deliberately provoke and challenge readers in 1952 is simply no longer considered remotely risqué, and much of the background: Carol’s husband is vying for custody of their daughter now that he realises his wife prefers carpet munching to spending time with him and Therese’s boyfriend wants to get married but she thinks she might want to be a photographer and be gay instead, all carries the artificial feel of the movie with it, a set of traps placed to confine the women and potentially doom their affair, conveniently providing a framework for theoretical tension and reasons for them to want to be together – as much to share in an escape from their constrictive lives as friends as to begin a new physical and emotional entanglement.

Carol’s daughter looks remarkably like a younger version of Therese, and this is both no accident and one of the more interesting elements of the film, the rest could have done with more insights into the human condition but alas the trysts never really bite, not even in bed, and moments of charm are leavened out by the dominance of effusive boredom and meaningless aesthetics, driven home by dressing Mara up like Audrey Hepburn at the end of the film, even though it’s too early for her to be copying her anyway unless she really took to Hepburn’s cigarette selling cameos. Similarly, if we look at the pic above, which is where the pair first meet, we can see all the thought gone into positioning and staging, much like a Vetriano painting with suggestive angles all over – note how the pen points phallically toward Therese following precisely the eager bent of Carol’s gaze and posture, see the way she pinches the card she’s holding and look at how Therese’s right breast is perfectly framed to be protruding proudly toward that which is making her heart race. All this is fine, but there’s too little soul beneath the surface artistry.

The leads both offer promise, especially Mara, but they never fully convince romantically and one hopes the affair doesn’t become another female Oscar winner purely because of its content and its brief moments of nudity – which one does question the film’s need for, and yet they provide some of the more memorable moments and I think there’s always going to be a certain, ahem, je ne sais quoi about watching two of Hollywood’s most attractive leading ladies going at it under the sheets. Visual peaks aside, I found myself wondering, would changing the sex of one lover alter the film in any way? No, is the answer, it would be just as tedious.

Legend  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     131 Min        18

Tom Hardy plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the infamous London gangsters who terrorised the city throughout the fifties and sixties, in a film that is about as unreal a historical depiction as you can imagine. The whole movie has a strong comic vibe to it, feeling primarily like an excuse for Hardy to show off artistically, and indeed it works better in this sense than in any other – partly because laughs were written into it but unfortunately also because there are numerous moments when it just feels a bit silly watching Hardy beat-up on himself. ‘The Double‘ was much more successful in putting the same actor onscreen as multiple characters – here Ronnie is depicted as a schizophrenic lunatic with a love for anarchy and violence, with Reggie as the more respectable and intelligent but an equal in terms of his propensity for bloodied destruction.

Emily Browning is a highlight as Frances Shea, Reggie’s lover, and Hardy skilfully creates numerous indelible moments but writer and director Brian Helgeland (here adapting the works of the man the Krays’ hired to immortalise them in print – John Pearson) takes the conspicuous easy road too frequently – often the face of one Kray is in shot whilst the back of the other is in the foreground etc., and indeed, despite several gory, brutal and menacing scenes, he has managed to more or less write out the entirety of the Krays’ criminal misdeeds, they’ve become ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ from down the pub and the only people we see suffering are those personally involved with them rather than the innumerable innocents concerned – all leaving the whole thing feeling about as realistic as an episode of ‘Eastenders’.

Vacation  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                       99 Min        15

You have to applaud the premise behind this – to continue National Lampoon’s run of comedy vacation films from the eighties (of which, probably the ‘Christmas Vacation’ from 89 is the one most familiar to audiences now – the ‘National Lampoon’ moniker having likely been dropped from the title here as the magazine sadly bit the dust at the end of the nineties) which featured the Griswold family, with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as the father and mother each time, as they embarked on a number of determined but disastrous family adventures. Here, Ed Helms plays the male kid of the Griswold clan Rusty, now all grown-up and married to Debbie (Christina Applegate) with a family of their own – James (Skyler Gisondo) and his younger brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins), all of whom are about to attempt a repeat of the bonding road trip to theme park extravaganza Walley World (originally a thinly veiled Disney World) that begat the film series with the first ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ (83).

The first and perhaps most noticeable overall difference is that Rusty seems to have shed a regular amount of intelligence quotient in the interim period from his childhood, and is barely recognisable as the same character anymore (although arguably this had already begun to happen by ‘National Lampoon’s European Vacation’ in 85). As the central character he is simply too dim to believe and indeed Helms’ portrayal isn’t all that far away from some of his other comedy roles, in the likes of ‘The Hangover’ trilogy for example, and this ungrounded feeling permeates, and detracts from, all of the jokes in the film (gone are great and indelible scenes like Clark’s first ‘break down moment’).

An effort to maintain continuity with the original has been maintained throughout, even though this wasn’t strictly necessary, and both Chase and D’Angelo appear briefly – it probably would have been a much better idea to have them as the central focus, taking both their kids and their grandchildren on holiday this time to … the Middle East perhaps? ‘National Lampoon’s Intervention Vacation’. Despite very few real laughs the family are still likeable enough and the film is by no means a complete failure, simply a big disappointment. With Leslie Mann, Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day in support.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     116 Min        12A

Guy Ritchie’s movie adaptation of the extremely popular sixties TV show of the same name sees Henry Cavill take on the role of suave American spy Napoleon Solo, with Armie Hammer as the much more stoic KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, all with the kind of stylistic touches that are immediately reminiscent of his Sherlock Holmes adaptations (back in 09 and 11). The director’s approach here isn’t as unreal looking as in those previous films, but it is what eventually ruins the movie – indeed, this is one of the best examples of how overuse of music in a film can be destructive: his choice of tracks is very good, but they are essentially used as a constant vehicle for narrative removing any sense of story or characterisation from the film. Cavill has been aptly cast as Solo, but Hammer’s initial Russian accent delivery is enough to make entire continents cringe aghast, although it does become less annoying as time goes on – I’m not sure if that is because it improves, or just because he has less lines to deliver as the music dominates over everything.

The pace is adequate, if a little ponderous, and the opening does suggest a lot of promise – which is unfortunately never delivered, as the two spies are lumped together for the first time by their respective governments in a mission that will be a precursor to the founding of U.N.C.L.E.: together they must attempt to thwart a nuclear threat on the world in general, from spurious bad guys up to no good as usual. An attempted emphasis has been placed on creating a light-hearted, fun action film with a focus on comedy, largely via the abrasive union between the two agents destined to become friends, and visually in this sense the film finds some success but alas the jokes never fully fire off the way they were intended, it’s all a little obvious and a little stilted. Hopefully Ritchie doesn’t repeat the same mistakes in his upcoming ‘King Arthur’ flick, as his track record disappointingly suggests it may be aimed as just another vacuous and irrelevant franchise anchor.

The Legend of Barney Thomson  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                       96 Min        15

A reasonably solid first attempt behind the camera (notwithstanding an episode of Stargate) for Robert Carlyle, but sadly one let down by a common fault within the black comedy genre – over reliance on a concept to be continually be amusing in its own right; much like filming squirrels going rogue and deciding to collect human nuts for the winter could be quite funny, but it may also become incredibly tedious watching the little critters continuously emasculate runners in the park (actually, I think this concept would work no matter how it was done). Here, Carlyle plays nondescript local Glasgow barber Barney Thomson (he only knows two different styles of cut, although this is already one more than most of the barbers in Scotland) who accrues a habit of accidentally killing people who would otherwise have been in a position to cause him significant hardship. Alas, he spends most of the film whining and stressing about it and we simply don’t care – it’s not a terribly amusing concept to begin with, better if he laughed manically every time it happened and then started to create scenarios that induced a high likelihood someone he doesn’t like might ‘accidentally’ bite it.

The film is based on the novel ‘The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson’ by Douglas Lindsay and there are a number of nice comedy moments but unfortunately the majority were spoiled for us by the trailer, and whilst Emma Thompson as Barny’s mum and both Ray Winstone and Ashley Jensen as the cops investigating the murders all give really strong performances, everything just becomes increasingly humdrum as the film progresses, the story continually bogged down by the protagonist’s lugubrious outlook and demeanour turning everything as stale and depressing as indeed the choice of cinematography, with its hazzy late-fifties vibe, had always been suggesting we could expect throughout. With Tom Courtenay, James Cosmo and Martin Compston in support.

Jupiter Ascending  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                      127 Min       12A

Hmm. If you have seen the Wachowski brother’s (sorry, that should be sibling’s – one of them has had a sex change) last outing ‘Cloud Atlas‘ then whatever you felt watching that is almost certainly going to be replicated by this over the top sci-fi blunder/extravaganza, which this time around is both written and directed by them. It often looks quite impressive, and there is action galore, but it encapsulates the very definition of ‘popcorn entertainment’ and there’s a bountiful smorgasbord of cheese dripping and then exploding from start to finish. The opening section is easily the worst, with poor performances and a bad delivery of what’s already a ropey premise – that one Earth woman, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the reincarnation of the mother of the Abrasax triumvirate, the Princess and Princes who rule our section of the universe, and as such she is hot property to be contested for by all, queue lots of men fighting over the pretty girl and rubbish wedding attempts and the inevitable falling for the rugged bounty hunter with a heart who’s the first to reach her – Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who is also part canine. Yes. It must have taken them a while to think of the character name.

With the added element that the Abrasax family process human beings into chemical compounds that produce a life extending elixir, the story appears to be a simple splicing of ‘Flash Gordon’ (80) and ‘Dune’ (84) and it rarely proves interesting, though things do start to pick up once Sean Bean enters the fray (as ‘Stinger’, he is part honeybee), a past master at making rubbish plots sound feasible. With support from Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton. If you are just in the mood for watching something flashy that doesn’t engage your mind in any way at all then this does tick a lot of the right boxes, but if we compare this to Marvel’s similar space adventure mash-up ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘ it becomes clear that the Wachowskis have yet to really learn from their multitudinous and oft times glaring mistakes of the past.

Million Dollar Arm  (2014)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     124 Min        15

This had a lot of potential – the true story of baseball coaches and sales reps starting a reality TV talent competition, the eponymous ‘The Million Dollar Arm’ tryouts, in India in 2008 to find two cricket players that could potentially make the transition into playing for a major league baseball team in the States. It was the brainchild of main character J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) largely borne out of struggling finances as he fails to sign anyone of any significance to his sports management firm. Unfortunately, it feels too much like a Sunday afternoon live action Disney film with a far, far too traditional character arc for Bernstein (actually, this is a live action Disney film, maybe it’s about time they updated their formula … ), he will put money first but then realise what’s in front of him with regard to his friends, the hot girl next door, and the youngsters he takes from India back to America, before putting money first again and giving everyone else a hard time, promptly getting slapped around by the aforementioned, once more forced to acknowledge what really matters at heart etc. etc.

Nothing that happens as this see-saw continues is particularly interesting, and attempted comedic moments with the likes of grumpy baseball scout Alan Arkin never really work as intended. It’s yet another hopelessly contrived drama based on a real story that, if given the few base facts required, you could probably storyboard yourself in ten minutes and do a better job, and it likely would have worked much better as a documentary given the wealth of primary footage they must have had at their disposal. The acting is fine but essentially fits the entirely humdrum nature of the whole shebang, with support from Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi and Madhur Mittal (‘Slumdog Millionaire’ 08) and Suraj Sharma (‘Life of Pi’) as the two potential superstars Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh respectively (neither of whom, ironically, like cricket). We don’t even get to see the pair actually play any games of baseball, it just concentrates on them learning to throw the ball the whole time and whether or not they can do it fast and accurately enough – probably not particularly exciting to do, never mind sit and watch.

The Inbetweeners 2  (2014)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                       96 Min        15

The sequel to 2011’s ‘The Inbetweeners Movie’, itself based on the eponymous and successful TV show, showing the exploits of four English teenagers – predominantly as they busy themselves trying to get laid. Alas, the one or two episodes of the series that I’ve seen were both funnier than this, as was the first movie, with the film trying too hard and aiming to up the level of crassness in the hope that the comedy value will rise in direct proportion, and although you probably will laugh occasionally, it’s likely you’ll cringe twice as often as everything starts to feel more and more like creative desperation.

The acting from the central players is fine though, with the return of all four main characters: Will, Jay, Simon and Neil (Simon Bird, James Buckley, Joe Thomas and Blake Harrison respectively) and support from Emily Berrington and Tamla Kari, as the foursome travel Australia whilst on break from work and uni, their ensuing encounters playing heavily on the cliché of wanky travellers trying to find themselves but essentially just trying to get laid like they are, but with precious little made of the abundant natural landscapes around them, focusing more on dull, small scale sets and interactions.

One of the few moments worthy of note features a mirage of a lake whilst they are in the Outback, which is taken at face value by the recipient stating if he was imagining things he’d be seeing something amazing, like Optimus Prime banging Katy Perry. Ironically, this is exactly what that franchise needs. Imagine Prime, in his gravelly voice … ‘Autobots. Even though they still hunt us after we saved their world four times, we will not abandon Earth. Instead, we will now mate with the humans in order to preserve our species and theirs. I must lay with their female leader, Katy Perry, Bumblebee you will seduce their Decepticon puppet, Miley Cyrus, by letting her twerk over your gear stick. The fate of our world, and theirs, depends on it.’ Hasbro could develop a whole new line of toys …

Sabotage  (2014)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     109 Min        15

The latest film from director David Ayer, who continues with similar themes from his last film ‘End of Watch‘, although he has largely ditched the hand held camera aspect this time around. We once again are put in the midst of American law enforcement, this time a squad of hard as nails DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) operatives led by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, with Sam Worthington, Mireille Enos, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Josh Holloway, Max Martini, Kevin Vance and Mark Schlegel rounding out the rest of the group. Catchphrases like ‘high octane’ and ‘adrenaline fuelled action’ could probably be used to describe the action but really I think the term ‘sick’ is the most accurate descriptor for the piece. The team are caught up in a scandal when they all decide to steal some of the bad guy’s money before they burn the majority of it, but it’s not waiting at the point of egress as it should be – so where has it gone?

One by one we see the group brutally murdered, and we have to guess if it’s an internal thing, if the hits are being planned by the drug cartels, or if the rest of the department aren’t too happy about a rogue unit planning thefts of millions. The level of bloody violence has really been taken to the nth level here, which is just indulgent and silly – the same as in End of Watch when the officers uncovered all sorts of stuff when they were on the beat, things that you would normally expect to see in horror films. Olivia Williams turns up as the FBI agent assigned to investigate the assassinations and the acting is fine overall, but the plot, as well as being soaked in buckets of blood, just doesn’t add up in several places. Ayer has the skill to make an exciting action film, but he has to learn to ground it in reality, not the darkest regions of hell.

Yves Saint Laurent  (2014)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     106 Min        15

Boring with a capital B – this follows in the vein of the two films about Coco Chanel, both of which were death affirmingly dull, as the French language biography of another power house in the fashion world, in this case Frenchman Yves Saint Laurent – and what does he have of interest or value for the cinema going public? Well, not much really, we learn he was vain and spoiled, what a surprise, and that he liked having sex with men as well as women, again what a surprise, and that his ego and his vices took a catastrophic toll on his life. Not clichéd at all then, but there is also a coldness to the direction and the acting that makes it difficult to really get into the film. It warms up a little later on, possibly due to the story moving to the warmer climes of Morocco, but if you’re really interested in Laurent you would be much better off investing in some of the literature concerning him, rather than this somewhat ill conceived wreck of a movie.