Trainwreck  (2015)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     125 Min        15

Judd Apatow’s latest effort behind the camera, after ‘This is 40‘, is based on a screenplay from comedian Amy Schumer and indeed stars Schumer as the eponymous trainwreck – Amy (Schumer has acknowledged autobiographical input), a young girl working as a journalist in NYC and happy to have numerous casual love affairs whilst most of the people around her have things more ‘nailed down’, so to speak. Really, though, none of this makes her different from huge swathes of the populace, thus the film’s hoped for appeal, and so it hardly seems justified to refer to herself as a trainwreck, and indeed a number of her co-workers at the magazine’s HQ would probably do the title much more justice.

Schumer’s work is strongly reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s, as in the likes of ‘Frances Ha‘ for example, and indeed there are nods to Woody Allen here and there as we watch Amy try to start something meaningful with sports injury doctor Aaron (Bill Hader), whom she is sent to interview one serendipitous day despite her protestations (she hates sport). In this sense the film ends up becoming a very traditional romantic comedy, and its long running time does leave you with the sense a lot of the slightly self-indulgent and predictable dramatic meanderings in the second half could easily have been removed – although much of the comedy that remains is quite fun, making Schumer one to watch for the future. With strong support from Tilda Swinton, John Cena and NBA star LeBron James.

Southpaw  (2015)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     124 Min        15

Director Antoine Fuqua (‘The Equalizer‘, ‘Olympus Has Fallen‘, ‘King Arthur’ 04, ‘Training Day’ 01) tries his hand at the boxing genre but alas overcooks the melodrama and when considering the ultimate test of ‘does this film make me want to train?’, the answer is a disappointing ‘no’. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent, Naomie Harris and Oona Laurence bring the action to life as successful light-heavyweight Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) suffers personal tragedy, sending his life and career into free-fall and forcing him to fight to regain not just his financial status but his own peace of mind and the respect of his friends and family too.

Oddly enough, screenwriter Kurt Sutter, for whom this is his first feature film after working on ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and ‘The Shield’ for many years, has stated this is actually the metaphorical story of the latter half of Eminem’s life, somewhat following on from 2002’s ‘8 Mile’, and indeed the rapper was initially set to take on the lead role, with the notion of a southpaw (which means a boxer who puts the power behind the left instead of the normal right, although precious little is made of this element in the film itself) meant as a parallel for Eminem’s position as a white artist in a predominantly black industry. Yes, it’s a rubbish metaphor.

This goes some way to explain the numerous overindulgences, especially so with the heavy overuse of music throughout the movie (Eminem released the singles ‘Kings Never Die’ and ‘Phenomenal’ from the soundtrack) and whilst the performances are very solid throughout, especially so from Gyllenhaal and Laurence who plays Hope’s young daughter, the film never really manages to make you care all that much about any of the characters in the very basic, hackneyed and predictable story, though it remains watchable enough for what it is.

The film will also be remembered for presenting to the world the final completed score by legendary composer James Horner (‘Braveheart’ 95, ‘Titanic’ 97) who tragically died in a plane crash earlier this year and who apparently worked on Southpaw for free after seeing the film and loving the father-daughter relationship, even paying his crew from his own pocket. He had also secretly finished the music for Fuqua’s upcoming ‘Magnificent Seven’ (1960) remake (‘The 33’, a film about the 2010 Chilean mine collapse due to be released later this year, was also scored by Horner but he finished it before Southpaw) so it will be interesting to see how much of it makes it into the final edit, or indeed if Fuqua shoots parts of the film to specifically fit the music itself.

Self/less  (2015)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     117 Min        12A

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

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

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

Mr. Turner  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     150 Min        12A

Lavish, but oh so drawn out. Mike Leigh writes and directs this biography of English watercolour master Joseph Mallord William Turner, all focused on his late middle age, and I suspect even if you weren’t aware he was behind the camera you’d have a good chance of guessing since it follows his favourite themes of misery, death, and intermittent sex to briefly alleviate the gloom – all in sequential rotation. Timothy Spall plays the man himself, and whilst Spall is a fantastic actor and this is a well researched and very interesting interpretation, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a good one. Turner is displayed as conspicuously porcine, grunting and partially snarling when he’s not throwing overly large words at the unsuspecting people around him, or indulging in verbosity if you prefer, and all of this appears to fit eye witness accounts of the man – and perhaps that is the problem, we have an outward representation of someone that’s been combined with Leigh’s somewhat definitively depressing outlook on life and that’s about it, we never really feel like we’re getting to the heart of the real person.

There are lots of nice scenic shots but they are so obviously staged, with horses running in unison into the frame on cue etc., and the whole film never quite escapes that feeling of artificiality. Not to mention it’s really long and the opening hour or so is interminably dull. It does, however, have more success in creating a realistic impression of the arts scene at the time, as we see Turner mix, as best he can, with his contemporaries and he displays his guile and skill in the infamous anecdote often told where he shows off in front of rival Constable, seeming to deface his own work in the gallery only to return later and finish it off, delivering his coup de grâce to an appreciative audience. A lot of work and study has clearly gone into this and certainly some merit is here to be found, just be prepared for a rather laborious search for it. Incidentally, the Scottish National Gallery holds roughly forty of Turner’s works and they often appear on display at some point during the year for anyone interested in viewing them – at least partially fulfilling for these paintings the artist’s wish that his work be permanently bequeathed to, and put on display for, the British nation. Many of the others ended up in collections scattered around the globe.

The Best of Me  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     118 Min        12A

Directed by Michael Hoffman (‘Gambit‘, ‘The Last Station’ 09) and adapted from yet another self consciously trite novel by king of the gushy teen melodrama, novelist Nicholas Sparks. I am slightly alarmed to say I enjoyed parts of this – and it is entirely due to the strength of some of the as yet unfamiliar faces in the movie. Dawson (James Marsden) and Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) are two star-crossed lovers who are brought back into each other’s life when a mutual friend passes away, and we see them stare at each other not quite sure how to act (in every sense of the word) as the film continually flits back in time to show us how they fell in love and also how they came to be strangers.

Their younger selves are played by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, and in these parts the story is still formulaic piss but it does nevertheless work well with convincing performances and direction. Afterward, though, that predictability careers downhill with moments of ‘oh no, please tell me this isn’t going to happen. Sigh. It was inevitable for more than one reason I suppose.’ Sparks really is taking the mick here and he needs to hire someone that can extricate the enormous lumps of his own cheese from the plot as some of the rest has enough emotional empathy and resonance to be worthwhile. Fans of his probably won’t be too disappointed by this, unless by some miracle the novel is a serious piece of literature.

Bogowie  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     120 Min        15

Polish language film documenting the work of maverick surgeon Zbigniew Religa, as he attempts to lead the way in helping pioneer heart transplant surgery from within the confines of his desperately hard fought for clinic in Zabrze in early 1980’s Poland. There is a distinct Frankensteinian air to the core of the debate as to concerns over the morality of the surgery that the bulk of the medical profession raise (as well as in the very notable portrayal of Religa himself by Tomasz Kot) as we see the man bombarded with accusations of egotism and we witness the increasing toll that stepping into the dark against the odds takes on him.

To an extent, the film unfortunately gives credence to these accusations – we are never given the appropriate information to see how the story fits into a wider global or medical context. Almost nothing is said of the work going on elsewhere, and yet any audience has a reasonable chance of knowing the first successful human heart transplant was carried out by doctor Christiaan Barnard in South Africa in 1967 – as we see Religa struggling for success we are thereby unsure if the rest of the world has hit a roadblock, if the first success was short lived/a one off, and if this is then one man determinedly setting out to advance medical science and save lives, or if he is motivated by ego and there is a wealth of other research from elsewhere that he is ignoring. At one point he comes in and announces a solution to a part of the problem they have been experiencing – and yet it appears to have simply come out of thin air one day, inviting more questions than it answers.

Similarly, we do see some graphic images of surgery (which some viewers may find difficult), but we are never really given much in the way of scientific information about the medicine of transplants specifically nor generally, which is disappointing and denies us historical context from a medical progress point of view. Indeed, what transpires is a fairly traditional ‘hero’ film that is interesting and well acted, but is so linear that it feels almost attached to an artificial pump of its own, with the same music continually droning in trying to force the tension as our hero struggles on with nary a moment of sunshine in sight, leading us to potentially doubt the authenticity of all but the most well documented of events.

More flair was definitely needed, and although it makes sense to show that Religa wishes to remain detached from his patients, for the audience adding more emotional connection may have been a better idea as we know next to nothing about the people that are wheeled through the doors of his clinic, their lives very much in his hands. Similarly, showing most of the characters smoking fits the time period, but there was no need to take it to the ridiculous degree that it does – miring the entire movie in a nasty cliche that the industry has moved on from, as we see the main character smoke in virtually every single scene he is in, and if he isn’t smoking he’s drinking. Even if that is historically accurate (and since he was a heart surgeon, one can be forgiven for considering it a little dubious) on film it’s overkill and symptomatic of a movie trying to create a certain style that we’ve seen many times before, rather than a story that feels more real and balanced.

Still, this is a very reasonable film, it’s just a shame that the filmmakers didn’t dare to be more original and take more chances with it, or put more humanity in there to make it feel more authentic. The ending is also delivered with an anticlimactic abruptness that highlights what could have been, as we walk away reasonably sure that we’ve learned about someone of importance, we’re just not entirely sure to what degree. Interestingly, the ending also pointedly omits the fact that Religa, who sadly passed away in 2009, went on to become a very prominent figure in Polish politics, even campaigning for president before eventually giving his backing to Donald Tusk (Prime Minister of Poland from 07- Sep14, and due to become President of the European Council in exactly one month’s time) and instead becoming the minister for health – his successor, Ewa Kopacz, herself a doctor too, is currently the reigning Polish Prime Minister.

The Rewrite  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

Hugh Grant teams up once again with his long time collaborator – writer and director Marc Lawrence (‘Two Weeks Notice’ 02, ‘Music and Lyrics’ 07, ‘Did You Hear About the Morgans?’ 09) for another romantic comedy that’s as predictable, bland and slow as its predecessors, but by the same token it also retains certain qualities that make it reasonably easy to like despite not being especially noteworthy in of itself. Grant plays once hugely successful and now struggling screenwriter Keith Michaels, who is forced to take a teaching position in Binghamton in New York State (also where ‘Twilight Zone’ creator Rod Serling is from, as Grant tells us in the film) a far cry indeed from his normal Hollywood stomping ground.

Initially disdaining, he inevitably warms to the locals (largely due to the charm of Marisa Tomei who takes his class) and comes to realise he actually has something to offer as a teacher and that it can be a very rewarding thing to do. Banging one of the hot coeds along the way (Bella Heathcote) certainly wets his appetite but also helps put him at odds with his superiors J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, forcing him to confront how he presently views himself and also ask questions of his somewhat embittered take on the creative arts and life in general. Grant’s charisma as a leading man is evident but, much like all the other boxes the film correctly ticks, it barely registers as the softly pleasant humdrum continues. Oddly, one of the more memorable moments comes from the expected ‘Ok, you were right, I’ve been a twat but now that you’ve made me realise that and I’m debasing myself in public you won’t be able to resist forgiving me completely and everything will be hunky dory’ speech from Grant, as all the while we can see the distinctly unimpressed extra in the queue behind him, featured in the pic above ..

A decent enough watch, but if someone asked you in a year’s time to name all the Hugh Grant films you could think of, you might be struggling to remember the name of this one.

What If / The F Word  (2013)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                       98 Min        15

The title (both versions – it was released as ‘The F Word’ in Canada) of this Canadian set romcom kind of sums up the very stretched premise behind it – what does one do when one really connects and falls in love with a girl who’s in a relationship, as if the writers were trying to think of a twist on the otherwise extremely formulaic and banal set-up and one of them thought ‘well, what if we do the same as usual but we make one of them unattainable so the other is tortured and that will form the tension, and we can get some young, up and coming actors in order to sell it as something worthwhile.’ The two actors in this instance are Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who both do a pretty good job and both have recent success stories with ‘Kill Your Darlings‘ and ‘Ruby Sparks‘ respectively, but in terms of raw sexual and romantic chemistry the fireworks never really go off here.

There are a few nice and witty moments, and overall things are balanced enough, but it never escapes from the sort of desperate nature of the writing trying not to make the central pair out to be cheating scumbags, and yet portray ‘the boyfriend’ character (played by Rafe Spall) as being a bit of a douche, but not too overtly bad either. It purports to play with fire, but extinguishes it in fear of losing control, as ultimately it’s pretty dark and depressing territory they’re heading into, and they don’t really want to challenge the young couple demographic that they are hoping to appeal to. It’s kind of like a Nicholas Sparks take on an Ingmar Bergman film, and although there are moments of decent comedy, it feels like they arose through the invention of the actors themselves rather than the team behind the film – a resultant sweet distraction rather than something with deeper meaning or any resonance likely to be found.

The Expendables 3  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     126 Min        15

Whatever your reaction was to parts one and two of Stallone’s collaborative bullet fest that is the Expendables franchise (part four has been more or less confirmed), you can be pretty sure you will feel exactly the same about this one, largely because the formula has just been reapplied once again replete with the expected increase in the amount of famous names gracing the screen and the number of explosions and bodies they strew each scene with. It’s a series of films that never manages to be as good as it should be, with no real tension and a humour level that always falls short of where you wish it would get to.

To be fair, the writers (Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt and Stallone) have more or less done the right thing with the story. Terry Crews is brutally injured during an op gone wrong (presumably penance for appearing in ‘Blended‘) and the team suffers the double whammy of realising an old arch nemesis of Stallone’s is still alive – Mel Gibson (who is arguably the best in the film, relishing in the role of the villain much as he did in ‘Machete Kills‘). Thinking it’s time to protect his, only slightly, aged crew Stallone gives them the elbow and hires new blood in the guise of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz and female recruit Ronda Rousey – the mixed martial artist and Olympic medallist in her first film role. You can probably guess how the old hands take the news as everything builds to the inevitable finale at Gibson’s complex in, wait for it …. Assmenistan (the suffix ‘stan’, incidentally, means ‘land of’, so this literally means ‘land of the Assmen’).

The action manages to put even the scene in ‘Hot Shots! Part Duex’ (93) where there is a running tally of kills to shame, as enemy soldiers drop like flies every time one of the Expendables points any weapon in roughly their direction. Not content with this basic annihilation though, the various stars of the action genre’s yester year seem to have had a running competition on the go of ‘see who can deliver the most ridiculously self referential line in the weirdest way’ as we witness Schwarzenegger cry ‘CHOPPA!!!’ multiple times and watch Harrison Ford’s government agent Max Drummer say ‘don’t worry about Church, he’s out of the picture’ (Church was previously played by Bruce Willis, but he reputedly asked for a huge fee to come back, and so they just axed him instead. I think they should have at least offered him one dollar for his services first).

The references run the gamut from fun to cringe worthy – as do the one-liners in general. At the beginning the team are trying to break Wesley Snipes out of incarceration, and of course he did just recently get released from jail after a three year stint for tax evasion, so that was a nice touch. Ford saying from a helicopter as he drops a bomb on enemies below ‘Drummer is in the house’ not only must have had the people in the back of the chopper concerned about the sanity of the pilot, but he also delivers it in the sort of matter of fact way you’d say something like ‘there’s milk in the fridge’ – and that kind of sums up the mix that exists for all the cast at one point or another. There’s no Chuck Norris this time around with Antonio Banderas as the other note worthy addition to the crew, and despite some decent action scenes there is a definite lukewarm feel to everything, although given the premise perhaps more credit is due for at least treading water and not letting the series nosedive into complete farce. Here’s hoping the fourth one is more worthwhile.

The Nut Job  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                       85 Min        U

Not sure if ‘The Nut Job’ is really a suitable title for a kids film, but nonetheless it refers to the antics of various squirrels and woodland creatures living in a park in the middle of fictional Oakton City as they try to secure winter food for themselves by stealing nuts from a nearby shop, the owners of which are themselves using this as a cover whilst they try to dig a tunnel under the bank across the street. The animation is essentially quite good and the voice acting from the likes of Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Katherine Heigl and Liam Neeson is fine, with the film playing out rather like an extended version of an episode of ‘Tom and Jerry’ as the story is primarily delivered via an endless series of chase sequences. There is a slightly questionable good guy/bad guy set up as the hero, Surly (Arnett), is mainly concerned with gathering food for himself and ultimately he is vindicated in this (although he of course ends up helping everyone else and realising the errors of his selfish ways), as the powers that be, the evil Raccoon (Neeson) and his ‘angry bird’ clone henchman, turn out to be hoarding food to control the masses rather than to make sure they are all well fed. Should entertain children, but might struggle to ever become a family favourite.