Pan  (2015)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     111 Min        PG

The latest reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan operates as a prequel, with Peter (Levi Miller) abducted from his London orphanage during a WWII blitz raid by a flying pirate ship belonging to the dreaded Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a slaver frigate that whisks him off to Neverland and the servitude that awaits him; hard labour digging in the mines for the life giving elixir that is fairy dust, wherein he will meet and befriend none other than fellow slave James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), ultimately taking the two on an adventure that will bring them, along with Smee (Adeel Akhtar), into the sphere of influence of the colourfully kick-ass Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) as they attempt not only to escape Blackbeard’s clutches, but also to discover what happened to Peter’s parents, who left him naught but a silver pendant of some panpipes that he has worn religiously around his neck ever since.

Written by Jason Fuchs and directed by Joe Wright (‘Pride and Prejudice’ 05, ‘Atonement’ 07, ‘Anna Karenina’ 12), the film is notable for its unique visuals where the emphasis of the movie has really been placed, but to be honest, they sent me to sleep the first time around. Thinking this was probably due to torturing foolhardy rubes all night rather than the movie, I watched it again and on 3D this time as it very much looked like it was meant to be viewed that way – alas, it actually looks much worse on 3D with large sections appearing too unreal and layered, to the extent that the flashy sequences matched with a whimsical story and a lack of any real depth to the thing does indeed make it quite soporific.

Light hearted family adventure was clearly the aim, and whilst it may please some youngsters and the wardrobe department have outdone themselves (with clear inspiration from Spielberg’s far superior ‘Hook’ 91) the final result is an ungrounded mess; half-realised ideas with committed performances that are drowned by a visual aesthetic that was way too experimental and ultimately fails. Rooney Mara is as radiant onscreen as she always is, just as Garrett Hedlund continues his growling acting career where he tries way too hard to be hard – this time attempting to be Indiana Jones for most of the film, although to be fair his style isn’t completely out of place with the movie here and he along with the rest of the cast are charming enough.

Ironically, the best moments in 3D are actually the stars twinkling through the credits at the end, credits that state ‘characters introduced by J.M. Barrie’ – ‘created by’ surely? As if the film is trying to take some sort of ownership over the much beloved inhabitants of Neverland, tsk tsk.

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.

Exodus : Gods and Kings  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     150 Min        12A

There is a clue in the title to this that it isn’t going to be all that great – ‘Exodus’ sounds grand, epic and serious. ‘Exodus : Gods and Kings’ sounds shit, like they want to make it clear they are using the story from the Old Testament but ‘not really’, or ‘we’re doing our own thing with it’, well, what’s the point then? The film is about the life of Moses (Christian Bale) in ancient Egypt up until the moment of the Exodus itself, opening with his time as the Pharaoh’s right hand man and here the man in charge actually prefers him to his real son, Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton), I don’t remember this from the old sermons I once heard (before I burned the church down) but OK.

Visually it’s very nice with wonderful costumes, sets and scenes of warfare and carnage which director Ridley Scott is no stranger to, but it suffers from the basic problem of just plodding on and running out of steam very quickly. ‘Noah‘ had an artistry to it and delivered things that were unexpected, and even the melodrama with the characters worked on some levels, here though it is very much a case of OK now this plague will arrive, and then the next one and then … and so on, all leading to a graphically impressive crossing of the Red Sea, which is crowned off by an example of complete and utter ridiculousness that is frankly embarrassing for Scott, where we witness central characters surviving being smacked in the head by A TIDAL WAVE right in the middle of the Sea. Hmm. There is also a somewhat confused morality within the screenplay – God’s wrath seems to inflict equal suffering on Hebrew and Egyptian alike, for example. In fact, it’s really difficult to discern what the point in making the film was.

As is always the case for biblical films there have been numerous controversies surrounding the story and production, ultimately though it simply isn’t good enough to care that much about, though criticisms about the ethnicity of all the actors (complaint being that all the leads are white) are difficult to allay when, as you see above, the actors with very black skin are clearly shown to be slaves. Is this inaccurate though? As you travel south from the Med through to the tropics the skin colour of the people naturally darkens (as presumably it still would have done in antiquity, although interestingly the early dynasties arose not too long after the time the Sahara is estimated to have become a desert in 3500 BC, after a shift in the Earth’s orbit), would it make sense for the Egyptians to trade for slaves around their southern borders? Do we even know what the colour of the ancient Egyptians’ skin was? Modern day North Africa is genetically dominated by the legacy of Islamic conquest and Mediterranean trade, and Egypt has always been at the confluence of three continents so I think it’s safe to say that it is difficult to know for sure, and Bale and Edgerton are at least suitably sunned so I’m not convinced it’s fair criticism.

There is an interesting moment when Christian Bale rides forth on horseback with his men flanking him on either side, and then he draws his sword ready for battle. Or at least, he tries to, it actually gets stuck briefly and it’s perhaps telling they decided to keep the take – it is precisely what you could imagine happening if you were suddenly asked to film a climatic scene as ‘leader’, or indeed do it in real life for some reason, that or falling off your horse after tugging too hard, so in a way it’s nice it’s in there. Support from Ben Kingsley, María Valverde, and Sigourney Weaver – even though she only has about two lines.

Magic in the Moonlight  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                       97 Min        12A

Woody Allen’s latest oddly bears a lot in common thematically with the short film ‘A Most Complex Form of Ventriloquism‘ (it’s not outwith the realm of possibility that he viewed the film and was influenced by it – I believe it played in at least one festival in the States), set as it is in the 1920’s and focusing on Colin Firth’s Stanley Crawford, a notable stage magician with an equally infamous acerbic wit and sarcastic/pessimistic view on life, who is requested by an old colleague (Simon McBurney) to attempt to debunk Emma Stone’s alarmingly adept and attractive young Sophie Baker, who seems in possession of the gift of second sight – but is she the real McCoy?

Unfortunately, we can tell very quickly how things will unfold and there is nothing especially meritorious about the inevitable and arguably unfounded romance between the leads that develops, as Sophie manages to squeeze out some youthful vitality and hope that there could be an afterlife from Stanley. Firth is a natural at playing the gentleman and Stone equally so the ebullient Sophie, but the wit Stanley displays is more akin to that which people politely get used to and ignore rather than laugh at directly or under their breath and as such the comedy element falls decidedly dead. If you are in any way familiar with Woody Allen then you can unfurl the plot in two seconds, and we see not only the familiar motives from his work that also drew him to that of Ingmar Bergman, such as his fear of and obsession with death (indeed, it is most likely Bergman’s 1958 classic ‘The Magician’ played a role in coming up with this film), but also perhaps less muted shades of his own personal life as we see an older and successful male become victoriously infatuated with a much younger female. The set design and costumes are wonderful, but the lacking human connection and story leave the whole thing feeling stilted, like a sad ornament overly polished out of sheer boredom.

Earth to Echo  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                       91 Min        PG

The handheld genre finds its way into the family film market here, with very similar results to previous experiments with it: contrivances to always have multiple cameras on the go (bizarrely including a hidden camera in one of the kid’s specs, which seems like a particularly nifty bit of kit for them to have access to) and fairly irritating central performances as they constantly try to sound excited, telling us we should be too. The plot has us following three young boys (played by Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig and X-Factor contestant Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) around on their bikes as they trace a mysterious map that has appeared on their phones – a map which leads to the discovery of a small alien, Echo, that they will try to help collect the fragmented bits of his spacecraft so he (or she I suppose, its sexual organs are not noticeably examined) can go home before some evil ADULTS find it, play football with it and dismember it.

Echo has no real personality, it essentially looks really cute and can beep once for yes and twice for no, and that’s it, so the focus is on the adventure of the kids with at least an attempt to explore the strength of the bond between them, but mainly just watching them track down things and trying to avoid capture, with the very typical fantasy of the hot uptight girl from school (Ella Wahlestedt) somehow getting involved and coming along with them . For kids around the age of the main characters (fourteen?) it might be quite good, but for anyone else it’s a far cry from E.T. (82). One of them learns to drive a car in, literally, ten seconds. That’s the sort of level of production and believability you’re looking at here.

How to Train Your Dragon 2  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

The Red Dragon feels the need to debunk the hubris of this animated franchise (this of course follows up on 2010’s successful, and quite enjoyable, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’). Dragons cannot, point of fact, be trained, least of all by humankind. At best we might lead you on a little for our amusement, or because we enjoy toying with our food before we devour it, but the idea that someone can push the right bits of our bodies and mystically have us at their beck and call is, I’m sorry to say ladies and gentlemen, an erroneous construct of the movie industry in an attempt to satiate those such as myself and supply us with a never ending stream of playthings. The possible exception to this would be the case of particularly attractive human females who like to engage in the activity of dragon riding bareback for private reasons, as this strokes our egos as well as said reasons.

Oddly, the film’s main problem also concerns this aspect. Having well established with the first film (where everyone was originally engaged in conflict with one another) the notion that dragonkind and mortals can exist cooperatively by virtue of each being reasonable entities, this foundation is then turned on its head with the introduction of an ‘Alpha’ dragon which can effectively tell the other dragons what to do and they will obey zombie like each command. This does not work. It completely obliterates the previously central concepts of friendship, morality, reason and, most importantly, free will. Imagine what the sales pitch to create an accord between the species must now become – ‘Yes, seriously they can be trained and become your new best friend that will be loyal until the very end. Unless there is an Alpha in the area in which case YOU ARE TOTALLY FUCKED, and should find the nearest cave to hide in unless you want to watch your family being barbecued’. Worse yet, this concept is used to deploy one of the most hackneyed plot devices for upping the ante and drama in a sequel (no spoilers).

The movie eventually tries to atone for this egregious error of balance but it’s too late by then, and it’s symptomatic of a lot of the loose writing going on. The trailer shows the appearance of main character Hiccup’s long lost mother (played by Cate Blanchett with one of the weirdest pseudo Scottish accents ever) but it turns out she was swept away by a dragon (yes, she too likes to ride dragons, Cate Blanchett could also definitely fit into the exceptions category mentioned above) during an attack on the Viking village leaving her infant son and husband (chief Stoick the Vast played by Gerard Butler) to assume she was eaten. She wasn’t. Her flimsy excuse for allowing her family to think she was dead for twenty years is that the dragons became her friends and she didn’t believe the rubes in the village would change their ways. C’mon. She obviously found something she wasn’t getting at home.

The central storyline focuses on the discovery of an old long forgotten bad guy who’s building an evil dragon army, and our young hero will once again try to find a peaceful solution. Jay Baruchel returns to bring Hiccup to life but, as he speaks predominantly through his nose, he does not make a natural choice for voice acting, and he also plays him in the exact same way he does all his characters – the hopeless geek routine that will have you wanting to gouge your eyes out at points as he tries to tell people utterly crucial things that they need to know and continually lets them interrupt him – spit it out for God’s sake!

There are nice moments, and the animation is colourful, detailed and slick. All of which makes this exactly the same as most of Dreamwork’s output – skilled but with everything undermined by woeful writing. It’s not even morally robust enough to recommend for family viewing unfortunately.

Grace of Monaco  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     103 Min        PG

Universally panned by critics and booed by the Cannes audience that were, ahem, graced with its world premier. Despite ostensibly being about the life of Grace Kelly, one of the biggest movie stars of all time – who married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956 to become Grace, Princess of Monaco, this is really just a short, albeit eventful, chapter of her life and centers around the politically charged cauldron of intrigue that the principality found itself in with Charles de Gaulle of France, who threatened to extinguish the nation’s sovereignty if he did not get his way (according to the film at any rate). Likely, this political context strongly influenced the negative reaction in Cannes, a mere 42km or so down the French Riviera from Monaco.

It is interesting – detailing an event in history that was certainly new to me, and indeed presenting one of those moments when you think to yourself, ‘how come I’ve never heard about this before?’. Well, part of the reason for this is that huge swathes of its ‘history’ are fabrications. The personal goings on are of course speculation and invention, with a few events which did occur but a decade earlier than shown, in fact the Royal Family of Monaco have suggested people simply obliterate the lot of it in a press release about the movie, but whilst artistic license with unknown material is to be expected the liberties taken with the facts are simply too egregious to be ignored – like showing de Gaulle being politically outmanoeuvred by Grace by her contriving to have him show up for an event that he never in reality actually attended, and portraying the French as almost pantomime bad guys in order to have the audience sympathise with the protagonists without properly explaining the debate at hand. It’s a shame, Tim Roth as Rainier and Nicole Kidman as Kelly are good to watch, the story flows fairly naturally with the idolisation of the central heroine feeling appropriate rather than gratuitous, although director Olivier Dahan certainly stumbles and falls on more than one occasion.

An effort has been made to mimic to a degree the cinematography of the films Kelly herself starred in – even using obvious studio screens for the backgrounds as Kidman drives around the winding precipitous upland roads of Monaco. Indeed, there is a nod in the direction of what oddly stands out as one of the most memorable scenes in ‘To Catch a Thief’ (55) as we watch Hitchcock (played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths) being driven up to a cliff edge overlooking the whole of the city and, by extension, the entire nation – in the movie Cary Grant and Grace Kelly drive up to the same spot and it’s memorable for both the view and the moment, but it’s also very obvious this scene takes place within a studio and then suddenly, when Grant gets out of the car and walks to the boot, it cuts to location footage with, presumably, body doubles, before once again cutting back to the studio when he gets back into the car. It’s good to know even one of the world’s most famous and revered filmmakers wasn’t afraid to fudge it when he had to …

The film also fits in nicely to this era in the life of Hitchcock and the stories told in both ‘Hitchcock‘ and ‘The Girl‘, in fact chronologically this should be watched in between the two if you intend to see all three. The ending continues to cause problems – the very end bizarrely feels more like that of ‘The Return of the King’ (03), but during a climatic speech from Princess Grace the camera zooms in way, way too much on her face. We can see globules of mascara collecting, the scar from Nicole Kidman’s nose job and the insides of her nostrils in high definition, her bloodshot eyes focused by collecting tears – it’s about as far removed from a classical edit as you can get and it does detract from the moment but, having said that, it does make even the very glamorous and beautiful Nicole Kidman herself look, well, the very opposite of that – perhaps it was an attempt at vulnerability, and to humanise the glamour? Perhaps …

With Frank Langella, Parker Posey and Derek Jacobi in support.

Bad Neighbours  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                       96 Min        15

American comedy focusing on two young parents, played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, dealing with the fallout from a fraternity house moving into the the neighbourhood right next door to their newly mortgaged home. Zac Efron, Dave Franco and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (of whom, not enough is made) are the more recognisable members of the outgoing party mad students, and things kick off after the police are called to deal with the noise, with no surprises as to who called them. War ensues.

Rogen and Byrne are pretty much the worst parents ever, having sex in front of their infant and leaving her unattended whilst they nip next door to indulge in whatever drugs are on the go, but ultimately the film just isn’t that funny. Many of the laughs seem to be improved, and on this occasion that hasn’t worked so well – the best gag was ruined by putting it in the trailer as per the usual marketing error, and the rest simply aren’t inventive or original enough to extract more than the occasional titter. A nice cast, but ultimately quite a missable film.

The Wolverine  (2013)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     126 Min        12A

Another flawed and humdrum X-Men film. It’s the latest one to focus entirely on central character Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, from the franchise, following in the footsteps of the previous films and his own personal outing ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ (09). The action takes place in a modern day time frame, after the events of ‘X-Men : The Last Stand’ (06), with Logan trying to come to terms with losing Jean Grey and, well, killing her. This essentially forms the very loose character justification for the film, but in reality it seems to simply serve as an excuse to feature the return of Famke Janssen in dream sequences sporting various nighties and proffering us a number of different views of her cleavage. The overall character arc from the beginning of the film through to the end is sufficiently insufficient to wonder if there was really any point to making it at all.

Not to mention one of the few things of any actual consequence that does happen is pretty annoying in terms of what it leaves the character with, especially if you really like Wolverine, as is the case for The Red Dragon. All of the secondary characters are two dimensional at best, as Logan gets caught up in an entirely dismal and predictable family feud in Japan, that sees him inevitably step up to save the damsel in distress – but will she help him forget Famke Janssen’s cleavage, and rediscover his joie de vivre? Well, not if baddie mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) has anything to do with it – a fairly bad ass villain who is given no history or real flesh whatsoever, even Gargamel in ‘The Smurfs’ (11) has more onscreen presence, and it’s a complete waste of both the actress and the character. We also see our hero team up with Mariko (Tao Okamoto), whom we are supposed to believe is another mutant, but we actually doubt it – so poorly are her powers depicted to us. Indeed, one of the human characters seems a much better candidate for super hero abilities with his seeming inability to miss with his bow and arrow, much like Hawkeye in ‘Avengers Assemble’ (12).

Having said all that, I did enjoy seeing Wolverine back on the big screen, and Hugh Jackman vigorously embodies, with all his growling testosterone, the part he was born to play. All in all, it feels like a very, very standard comic book story, one that on the page probably wouldn’t achieve anything greater than wetting your appetite for more, but on the big screen the lackluster story can barely be concealed (ironically, the Japanese story arc in the comics is one of the best received ones). The visuals of Japan, whilst not spectacular, are certainly very beautiful, to Iranian cinematographer Amir Mokri and director James Mangold’s credit (who previously directed Jackman in ‘Kate & Leopold’, opposite Meg Ryan and Sabretooth actor Liev Schreiber, in 2001), and indeed showcasing Japan is probably the film’s biggest success. Mangold is capable of better than this, and bar a few moments of involving action, he and the cast deserved a much better script.

There is an after credits scene that you most definitely have to wait for (it plays after the initial credits, not after the full sequence so the wait is a short one), though I have very mixed feelings about what is revealed there too …..

The Bling Ring  (2013)    57/100

Rating : 57/100                                                                         90 Min        15

A bunch of idiots rob another bunch of idiots, in an idiotic fashion, in Sofia Coppola’s latest indie satire on modern celebrity culture. But do we care? Well, it is difficult to. Based on the real story of a group of teenagers that went on a robbery spree in Beverly Hills, targeting their celebrity idols and using the press to find out when they would be out of town. We watch them repeat the same thing over and over again throughout the film, with them leaving a profiler’s dream worth of fingerprints each time and being caught on CCTV on several occasions, with the only male of the group repeatedly saying ‘C’mon guys, we should really get out of here, now!’ and being completely ignored each time resulting in him casually continuing with what they were doing. Too little effort has been made with characterisation, with an emphasis placed on drink, drugs, and music. Having said that though, a large part of this is necessary to illustrate the world they are a product of, indeed to show the only things that are deemed important to them, with fashion and celebrity taking a high precedence, but we know right from the beginning that they do end up in court, even though we only get the briefest glimpse of the aftermath of the criminal proceedings for one of the characters, giving the piece a decidedly flimsy feel to it.

The group of young larcenists represent one side of the symbiotic see-saw that bobs up and down with the vagaries of fame and celebrity. They most notably, and frequently, target the house of Paris Hilton, who allowed the film crew to use her actual house in the movie, effectively letting her use ‘The Bling Ring’ as another publicity vehicle, and no doubt making a nice profit from the shoot in the process. It’s a clever move for her, so long as it doesn’t result in copycat robberies, or a sort of rite of passage for young bratlings to break into her house. A great deal of irony in the film itself then, but overall it simply becomes very tedious watching the group do the same thing over and over again for the duration of the film, something which wasn’t overly interesting in the first place.