Ricki and the Flash  (2015)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     101 Min        12A

Featuring Academy Award titaness Meryl Streep as fictional musician ‘Ricki’ Rendazzo (although screenwriter Diablo Cody was apparently inspired to create the film, not the character traits, by her mother-in-law Terry Cieri and her New Jersey band ‘Silk and Steel’), frontwoman and guitarist of her band The Flash, and detailing a tumultuous reunion with her estranged family after her daughter, Julie (played by Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer), enters a painful divorce and attempts to take her own life. Kevin Kline plays the ex-husband, with musician/actor Rick Springfield as Ricki’s current beau and lead guitarist of The Flash.

Director Jonathan Demme (‘The Silence of the Lambs’ 91, ‘Rachel Getting Married’ 08) initially creates an intimate drama but it all starts to slip away from him as time goes on, veering dangerously close to becoming a cheesy pastiche of middle-class soap opera vignettes – one of Ricki’s sons is gay and she doesn’t get it, her ex has married a black woman (there’s suggestion Ricki is racist as a result) and he keeps a stash of weed in the freezer (Ricki finds it in a second), and of course the cliché of the failed suicide attempt; there’s a blasé approach to everything, all with paper-thin treatments and Ricki as a down and out ‘rebel’ not welcomed by anyone but who’s musical talent will be offered as some kind of recompense for not bothering to be a mother for decades.

The music, however, is really good, with Streep’s vocals immediately evoking Stevie Nicks and working far better here than they did for her Oscar nominated turn in ‘Into the Woods‘ (Streep also spent a dedicated several months learning to play guitar, even receiving some tuition from Demme’s pal Neil Young no less), and indeed the performances all round are what partially redeem the film from its frequently transparent and hollow writing.

Pitch Perfect 2  (2015)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     115 Min        12A

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

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

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

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

The Homesman  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     122 Min        15

Tommy Lee Jones tries his hand behind the camera for the second time, the first being with 2005’s ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’, this time adapting Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name (incidentally Swarthout also wrote ‘The Shootist’, the big-screen adaptation of which was to be John Wayne’s final film in 1976) and co-writing the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver. Taking place in the American Midwest of the 1850’s (the continuous forty eight States are divided into the West, Midwest, South and Northeast, for those unaware), specifically Nebraska and Iowa, Jones plays George Briggs, a scallywag strung up by a rope and left to perish when he is rescued by Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy who, by way of a life debt, enlists him to help her in her temporary role of ‘homesman’ transporting three troubled ladies back to more civilised territories, a role which, as you may imagine from the name, is normally reserved for men.

Saying these three women, played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer, are troubled is a bit of an understatement, they are in fact all locked in the wagon for everyone’s general safety, including their own, the three having lost their minds whilst living on the harsh and unforgiving Nebraska plains. The western genre often focuses heavily on the terrain and landscape, the wilderness giving rise to questions of morality and justice where no law exists or, as in this case, encouraging aberrant character traits and/or destruction, the problem is none of the three women ever really convince that they’ve lost their marbles, and the first half of the film is not well paced or put together at all. Swank and Jones are both solid in their roles, as one would expect, and the idiosyncrasies of their relationship and by extension the film begin to kick in halfway through, markedly improving matters as more interesting events begin to develop. With brief support from John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, James Spader and David Dencik, this adds its own unique flavour to the genre, it’s just a shame central elements of it are somewhat undercooked.

Interstellar  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     169 Min        12A

You would be hard pressed to find a more contrived film than this, given that it deals with the concepts of space and time as variables and yet everything seems to happen dramatically at the same moment. Sadly, this is just the beginning of the screenplay problems which burden the whole movie and, notwithstanding the often intriguing and satisfying visual space opera we are treated to, all but destroy it. This is Christopher Nolan’s latest film since releasing ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ and he is joined by his brother Jonathan on writing credits, together delivering not only clichés of science fiction but of their own work as well.

Set in a troubled future where crop blights have made survival on planet Earth very difficult, the story focuses on Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut who now runs a farm with his father (John Lithgow) and two young kids, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet). Mysterious anomalies in the area lead the inquisitive Coop and Murph to a secret governmental institution which will eventually be responsible for the former adventurer once again taking to the skies – this time in an attempt to find a new habitable planet for the future of the human race to colonise (it’s also the second major science fiction epic for McConaughey after ‘Contact’ in 97). The core of the film focuses on family, humanity and adventure whilst making several attempts to treat us to a healthy dosage of real physics – in fact, the filmmakers combined forces with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose work initially inspired the film, and used real maths and data (many hundreds of terabytes worth of it) to produce the visualisation of a supermassive rotating black hole that they are fairly certain is what the thing will actually look like out there in space (it’s pictured above), and scientific papers based on their efforts have gone into publication, unusually uniting film with rigorous academia.

True to Nolan’s style, however, he takes a really interesting premise that he’s gone to great efforts to ground in reality and feasibility, and then he just rips everything up and writes a load of absolute gibberish, abruptly halting the journey he’d been taking us on. Think back to ‘The Dark Knight’ (08) when you had this wonderfully atmospheric and tense delivery, full of real stunts and real machines that actually operated as shown – and then right in the middle of the film he has his main character, Batman, jump off a skyscraper and land on a car below, damsel in distress in tow, completely unharmed despite having absolutely nothing to break or slow their fall (other than the aforementioned car). It’s completely ridiculous – why go to all that effort to make it realistic if you’re then going to blow it for no reason, and I love the Batman films so I still enjoyed them but I really wish he’d stop destroying the worlds and universes that he is so adept at creating.

Interstellar suffers from three major problems – one, the trailer completely spoils the central part of the film, and this is where the tension is really supposed to bite. Two, the writing of Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is diabolically poor, in fact she is easily the worst character they have ever created (they probably would have been well served enlisting the help of a female touch with the screenplay here) and unfortunately this combines perfectly with fault number one. Thirdly, alas in no small measure also combining with fault two, the plot asks us to make enormous galactic leaps with our suspension of disbelief which are comically too big. There is an attempt to bring a spiritual, emotional, human element into play which is often done in science fiction (1968’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for example, achieved it sensorially via artful direction and classical music) but it has to be done in such a way that the audience are going to be willing to take the leap because, well, why not? By simply going to the cinema there is an inherent willingness to invest in the movie and good art should expand our horizons anyway – it is not supposed to, as in this example, have the audience guffawing and sighing in irritation.

The visuals are a very curious mix of impressive (the black hole is terrific, especially when we realise it’s the most realistic depiction science is currently capable of), mainly average (background stars in our Solar System are conspicuously lacking, and generally the views of space aren’t as inspiring as they should be) and downright terrible (for some unknown reason there is a docking sequence where the models used look like they came straight out of the cupboards for ‘Space: 1999’, best case scenario is they were deliberately going for 70’s nostalgia), the score from Hans Zimmer is simple, atmospheric and very memorable although it does drag on throughout most of the film without changing all that much (I’ve seen the film twice now – the effects of this stack), a number of famous faces appear which continues to dilute the believability, and all in all I did still enjoy a lot of what is on display, but there is just no getting around the level of ridiculousness involved and the directly proportional disappointment, and I am often all for getting behind science fiction that wants to take artistic vaults into the unknown. The heart of this is uplifting, but the delivery is catastrophic.

Through the Eyes of The Red Dragon

Dracula Untold  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                       92 Min        15

This had loads of potential but alas it is disappointingly humdrum. Mooted as possibly rebooting Universal’s old Monsters franchise (a series of films featuring the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and their pals, which ran from the silent era in the 1920’s through to 1960), it still might, but it’s not exactly Batman Begins (05). This takes the original etymology of Bram Stoker’s titular character from his infamous 1897 novel ‘Dracula’ and runs with it – Stoker named his character after the equally infamous Vlad the Impaler, a moniker he acquired after death, who was born Vlad III Prince of Wallachia or Vlad Draculea, meaning son of Dracul – a title given to his father when he joined the Order of the Dragon (a military order founded in the early fifteenth century to defend Christianity and which formed a crucial presence in Eastern Europe to countermand the invasions of the Ottoman Turks, although really I founded this order to use humans as my pawns) as in Romanian Dracul used to mean dragon (now it usually refers to the Devil). Here, Count Dracula (Luke Evans) actually is Vlad the Impaler and we are transported to fifteenth century Transylvania where his small kingdom operatives as a vassal state for the unruly Ottomans, and the uneasy peace between them is bought at an increasingly heavy price.

Quite a promising way to retell the story, but I did wonder to myself ‘how are they going to make this interesting and not just a rehash of the myth?’ – the reply to that is they put Charles Dance into a cave as a mysterious old and deadly vampire, and when Vlad gets desperate to help his family and his people he turns to this creature for power and agrees to a sinister pact: ungodly vampiric abilities to smite his foes with and he can return to normal as well, if he can resist drinking human blood for a few days that is. Then of course he quickly wants to eat everyone around him, and Sarah Gadon playing his buxomly corseted wife doesn’t help matters as she looks good enough for normal men to want to feast on never mind her preternaturally starving husband. Again, this was a nice direction to take, the overriding problem is the execution continues to deflate as the film goes on until it culminates in a tedious and, at moments, plain silly ending against the less than fearsome evil Ottoman ruler (Dominic Cooper), which ultimately ruins the intermittent moments of promise from before. Indeed, Gadon’s bosoms are undoubtedly the most memorable thing about the film, together with the farcical nature of what eventually happens to them.

Jersey Boys  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     134 Min        15

This is one film that’s tough to go the distance with, slicing fifty minutes out of the beginning would certainly improve matters as the first half is lacking in almost every department. It’s Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort (one of his older films makes a brief appearance, but he remains behind the camera this time around) and it’s based on the award winning musical of the same name which documents the rise to fame of sixties sensations Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, with John Lloyd Young as Valli and Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda playing band members Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi respectively.

It’s really the same old story that seems to chart the progress of nearly every band and musician immortalised on film – humble beginnings, success, excess and then infighting that brings an end to the group. Initially, the cinematography and funeral march pace to the film cause huge problems – everyone and everything has a horrid eerie paleness that makes the people look more like spectres than live actors, but the singing and acting doesn’t really fit the bill either, with Valli at times about as vocally emotive as a dying squid. Eventually, as time passes in terms of years, more colour comes back in, or rather less is taken out, and when it comes to the larger numbers, everything is a little more polished and fluid. It suggests that a famous scene from Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’ (51) is responsible for one of their biggest hits ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ (and it’s a really terrific film if you haven’t seen it, although if it’s the scene I think it is the clip here cuts off before the main event as it were). Unfortunately, despite picking up significantly, it never really proves terribly interesting, although it is at least partially successful in extolling the virtues of looking out for family and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Outlander  (2008)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     115 Min        15

Sci-fi that sees Jim Caviezel’s soldier from another humanoid race (who seem to be exactly the same as us, something never touched on – nor is their relationship with Earth explained) crash land in Norway in the year 709 AD, releasing his deadly cargo onto the harsh and beautiful Norwegian landscape (although it was mostly filmed in Canada). Encountering a local tribe led by John Hurt, he must help the natives defend themselves against the extra terrestrial beastie he has forced upon them, and will inadvertently garner the lusty attentions of the king’s daughter, played by Sophia Myles (who is essentially recreating her character from ‘Tristan + Isolde’ 06), but how will the local churls react to potentially losing one of the two attractive women we see in the village? Well, they are about to get eaten anyway, markedly improving our hero’s chances.

A reasonably interesting story with convincing sets and average-decent swordplay, but one that is sadly let down by having an all too traditional resolution and increasingly improbable action sequences.

Mission to Lars  (2012)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                               74 Min    Exempt from classification

As a Metallica fan I thought I’d give this a whirl. It’s a documentary following brother and sister Will and Kate Spicer’s attempt to facilitate the meeting of middle sibling in the family, Fragile X syndrome sufferer Tom, with the person he admires the most in the whole world – Lars Ulrich, drummer and co-founder, along with James Hetfield, of hard rock band Metallica. We get some insights about Fragile X from the parents, Tom’s carer and an expert in the field that they interview, and we learn that some of the things that people with the condition find difficult are changes to their normal routine and loud noises. So, as the siblings conclude half way through, dragging him half way across the world to Metallica concerts in Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim on the last leg of their world tour, was perhaps not the most ideal way to spend more time with him. Especially not when they add filming him constantly into the mix.

Up until this point, it is very difficult to come close to understanding the other siblings let alone like them (Tom is much more agreeable), and it does beg the question of ‘Ok so you’ve decided to give this a try, but why make it into a documentary?’. We learn that Will is an amateur filmmaker, does this justify the project? Or just make it all the more exploitative? I suppose having cameras around may help sell their idea on the road …

Without giving away what happens, although I did want to see the film through to the end it just really isn’t altogether that interesting. In fact, it’s been filmed in a very cold, clinical manner that detaches the audience to a degree and not enough effort has been made to be either original nor to incorporate much in the way of music or information about Metallica (or indeed terrifically much about Tom and his condition) . Perhaps they were a little miserly when it came to the rights to use their tunes …

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  (2013)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                       96 Min        15

A film that has its moments, but overall feels largely pointless, not to mention derivative of the work of Terrence Malick. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play Bob and Ruth respectively – young lovers involved in a gang of thieves that we don’t really learn too much about, as very early on the police put an end to their career of choice by sending Bob to jail and leaving a now pregnant Ruth in the care of their adopted father Skerritt (Keith Carradine). Years further on, one of the local sheriffs, played by Ben Foster (who normally plays a total creep, and here looks completely out of his element, and frankly unbelievable, trying to be the ‘nice guy’), decides he rather fancies his chances of looking after Ruth and her young girl, which just so happens to coincide with the jail break of a certain ardent and desperate young father …

Overall the entire film feels like it’s trying too hard to be ‘arty’ and heavy with ‘depth’, and it reminds The Red Dragon a lot of ‘To The Wonder’ – there we seen Olga Kurylenko frolic in the fields with the sun low in the sky behind her, here we see Rooney Mara frolic in the fields with the sun low in the sky behind her. The music and the way it’s used feels similar, and although there is a lot more dialogue here, it still retains attempts at wanky poetry – especially issuing forth from Bob, and Affleck rarely convinces in any scene here. Indeed, one in particular is downright annoying as he delivers some vain rambling monologue in front of the mirror whilst chewing on something, slurring his words and talking in an unnatural affected way, ironically perhaps an attempt at ‘realism’. Given Casey’s brother, Ben Affleck, also starred in ‘To The Wonder’, these things do not seem like coincidence at all. Mara and Carradine are good, but with the pretentious title heralding a particularly hollow drama, it was wishful thinking indeed for director David Lowery if he thought this would touch base with such outlaw classics as ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (67) and ‘Badlands’ (73) – the latter of which was also directed by Malick. Coincidence?

The Odd life of Timothy Green  (2012)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     105 Min        U

There is a wonderful heart to this film, in that it focuses on a young family who find out they will never be able to have children and so, in an evening of cathartic desperation, they decide to write out all the things they imagine their child would have been, kind, ‘honest to a fault’ etc. and then they bury the list in an old wooden box in the back garden. A mysterious rain falls and up springs Timothy Green, their fully fledged nine or so years old son from the back garden, replete with leaves genetically attached to his calves.

It’s a nice idea, and the film from there on deals with issues of early, and abrupt, parenthood, and family relations and expectations. Unfortunately, it does so in an all too breezy way, and for the most part the story doesn’t prove engaging. The final third does deliver more on the emotional side of things and it is a spirited performance from the family members – Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner as the parents, and CJ Adams as Green, with a host of other recognisable faces appearing throughout, including David Morse and Dianne Wiest. Overall a nice, simple film, if a little flimsy – fine for young family viewing.