By the Sea  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     122 Min        15

A film written and directed by Angelina Jolie and starring both herself and her husband Brad Pitt, as Vanessa and Roland respectively – a couple whose marriage is on the not-so-subtle allegorical rocks below the Mediterranean French hotel in which they stay throughout the movie (it was filmed in Malta), was always going to arouse conjecture regarding possible correlations between fact and fiction (this is the first time the lady in question has listed herself as Angelina Jolie-Pitt, perhaps anticipating such gossip), much as orgy themed ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (99) did when it was released with its famous married couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise: shortly before they broke up. Given events in the film, the central pair here will be hoping no one reads into it too much, lest they should encounter whispers of ‘better not invite Angelina and Brad, they are massive perverts’.

There is a deliberate attempt to evoke arthouse film here, with influences from the likes of Antonioni, Fillini and even Bergman, and whilst it never comes close to the work of those masters, Jolie has nevertheless attempted something fairly, if you’ll pardon the pun, off-the-wall, which she deserves credit for – as former dancer Vanessa whiles away her miserable hours in their hotel room, her failed author husband drinking a bottle of beer for every line he thinks about writing, until one day she notices a sizeable hole bored so that the neighbours next door can be spied on at will. After very brief consideration, she partakes.

Jolie’s directing is better than her last attempt, ‘Unbroken‘, at a very fundamental level – early shots of the setting interject closer views of the characters and help to give us a framework, showing us the surroundings in much the same way we take mental snapshots of the most memorable views of the places we visit, and her work behind the camera feels at once marked in the right places and also disguised where it should be (though I note one of the opening brief shots is quite randomly of two cats. A reference to something perhaps?)

There is a conceit with this man-made gap in the wall – as we view it there is no earthly way that the couple next door (played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) wouldn’t notice the thing, especially since they effectively look right at it several times over. However, we see what the protagonists do, which effectively means we’re looking through a lens to cover the space in the room that the view does – of course this is the conspicuous lens of the camera but since we never see the peephole from the victims’ room, who is to say it wasn’t created with an actual lens? If that were the case, whosoever created the thing would have probably also gone to lengths to disguise it, and indeed sound wouldn’t travel as well as it would through a simple hole.

Similarly, regarding the film’s central driving motif – the mystery over why their relationship is in tatters and what connection, if any, this has to the voyeurism, only so many options are dangled in front of us before all is revealed and you’re left both unsurprised and also wondering if it really fits with everything before. However, if you really read between the lines there are a couple of potential events in their past which you could say are hinted at and no more, and if true then they would justify events in the film to a much greater degree, but you really have to want to piece it together and the movie itself isn’t focused enough to deliver where it needed to.

Much of the premise does work, it’s really the middle section that needed to be a lot more intricate – as it is there’s a flatness to it, a cold distance between the voyeur and the act of viewing, as if it’s being done out of simple ennui and that perhaps Jolie wasn’t quite willing to go the full distance and show masturbation onscreen, for example. Though, again, if the lack of arousal was intentional then it’s only really justified by a significant investment from the audience (in the real world). Other peripheral elements could also have been tighter – like the local barkeep, played by Niels Arestrup, divulging his life story and philosophy almost straight away instead of attempting more poignancy later on perhaps.

Still, lots of elements are really well done – the visuals with their prevalence of white against the sunny, sandy landscapes all set in the 60s/70s, are beautifully shot and immediately bring to mind the recent ‘The Two Faces of January‘. Both leads deliver great performances, with Jolie rarely more radiant onscreen and evoking shades of Bardot when she gets dressed up for the evening, and there are a number of key moments that work well, especially when delving into the sadness and pain of each character. The film proves interesting enough to draw you in throughout, and even if it ultimately doesn’t reach the level of the kind of art that inspired it, it is still reasonably successful on its own terms. Plenty of signs of promise from the determined writer/director.

The Lady in the Van  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        12A

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

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

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

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

The Intern  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     121 Min        12A

From writer and director Nancy Meyers (‘Something’s Got to Give’ 03, ‘The Holiday’ 06, ‘It’s Complicated’ 09), ‘The Intern’ sees Ben Whittaker (Robert de Niro) becoming increasingly fed up and bored with retirement, leading him to apply for an internship within a new and quickly expanding business – office positions specifically aimed at those in or near retirement as part of a sort of public outreach program. The only problem is Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), the boss of this company, hasn’t been informed and isn’t especially interested in it – but since one of the new recruits is de Niro she quickly warms to him and the pair start to become close friends as a result.

It’s a little wishy-washy – especially with the writing of Jules’s husband Matt (Anders Holm) who comes across more like a closet serial killer than a house husband, in fact he’s been neutered by screenplay design to a rather extreme degree and even Holm doesn’t know how to play it (look out for Hathaway greeting at the bad acting she’s confronted with). Some of the emotional scenes do still manage to hit the mark though, as the experienced Ben helps Jules through her uncertainties and marital problems, and even though it’s all a bit loose and moody the characters do espouse the sort of ineloquent dialogues that tend to accompany such moments in real life, and indeed when Jules remarks she’s part of the generation that taught women they could do anything and should always go for it and she reckons men got left behind along the way she raises a very salient point –it seems to me that more and more these days men are criticised simply for being men, or, perhaps, not being women. Sometimes I’m amazed the human race survives.

Funny in places and likeable throughout – de Niro is dependable and charming and Hathaway is as good at appearing stressed and vulnerable here as she was at portraying strength in ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ (she also fits in a reference or two to another of her films, ‘Rachel Getting Married’ 08). Look out for the moment that ought to reward anyone with a not-so-supportive parent ….

Precinct Seven Five  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        15

Documentary that details the corruption proven to be endemic in New York City’s Precinct Seven Five in the eighties – as told via interviews from the actual officers involved as well as some of the drug runners they helped out and some actual footage from the events described. If someone told you this was a comedy spoof, a ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ (84) of policing, you would believe them, you can’t help but think throughout ‘what a bunch of absolute, complete idiots’, although the film itself feeds into the problem with a racy delivery, much like the multitude of cop-chase TV shows on both sides of the pond, and a severe lack of any real consequences for much of the film.

Eventually, the real world hits home for the characters in the narrative and the audience, but it still lacks a lot in terms of the silent voices of several decades worth of victims. Despite large chunks appearing as an opportunity for the corrupt to boast of their various misdeeds, the film does manage to be both depressing and carnally compelling at the same time, and given its access to primary source material and the perps themselves, this does, despite its faults, stand as a very useful record for insights into what turns officers to the other side of the law in the first place, as well as how they can infect others like a virus if allowed to go on unchecked.

True Story  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                       99 Min        15

The dramatisation of Michael Finkel’s memoir of the same name based on his utterly bizarre experiences with Christian Longo, who was arrested in 2002 whilst falsely using Finkel’s identity in Mexico. At the time, Longo had briefly made the FBI’s ten most wanted list and was subsequently remanded in custody under suspicion of having murdered his wife and three young children. Finkel was, until shortly before these events, a respected New York Times journalist, up until one of his articles was proven to have contained false information, but he is thusly thrust into the strange circumstances and agrees to write his book based on Longo and the interviews he conducts with him in prison.

The film stars James Franco as Longo, with Jonah Hill as Finkel and Felicity Jones as his girlfriend. The central performances are both very good, and the progression in the dynamic of their relationship and the corresponding variations in their acting are spot on – Jones is predominantly in the background although her character plays an important role in terms of the screenplay; interesting to know if this element was true to real life or not. Where the film is let down, however, is with the relative inexperience of director Rupert Goold who fails to create any lasting tension and punctuates the narrative with lulls in momentum. We can see what he was trying to do, much like in a scene staged at dusk such that sunlight streams in diffuse bands from just behind a hut in the background and at moments it looks very nice, but equally the rays cut in and out of shot which is really distracting to the viewer.

The actors just manage to hold interest up until Longo’s trial, and there the actual story kicks in and the real impact of events can be felt. Ultimately memorable despite never reaching the levels of drama that it perhaps ought to have done.

Taken 3  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     109 Min        15

This is the king of THE TRAILER SPOILS VARIOUS ELEMENTS OF THE FILM scenarios – the main element in question here occurs (relatively) near the beginning of the movie but in this case that is no excuse. This is part three of the successful Taken series (the first was back in 2008) starring Liam Neeson as Brian Mills, the man with an especially deadly skill set and whose daughter you definitely don’t want to kidnap and sell as a sex slave, and for this reason people are going to go and watch the film regardless of the trailer so it ought to be possible to create one that gives minimum details away. I’m not very happy with the indifference shown to their product, but also the characters that have been fleshed out to various degrees thus far and we have come to like.

No surprise that this will again put Mills and the people he cares about into jeopardy, and it is entertaining and fun to engage with just as before. However, other than the aforementioned, what detracts from the film and story is the direction, from Olivier Megaton, which on several occasions ruins action scenes with far too rapid editing that makes it extremely difficult to make out what on earth is going on. There’s a sloppiness to some of the execution as well, Mills survives peril at one point simply by escaping it, not by doing anything clever or having the drop on the bad guys, and some of the gun fights have that feeling of ‘my character is going to win this so I don’t have to be too careful’. All this is perhaps best summed up by the final stunt which you see coming a mile off and has you kind of groaning to yourself – but when it happens it is actually really cool, it’s just been delivered so poorly that they’ve mostly blown it. Such a shame.

I still enjoyed this and it is by no means a dire sequel – Neeson, Maggie Grace and Forest Whitaker are all good and little touches like Whitaker constantly playing with a chess piece (he’s a detective) are cheesy, but appreciated nonetheless. If you have not seen the trailer then the advantage will be yours.

A Walk Among the Tombstones  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     114 Min        15

Gestating for many years, Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel finally reaches the big screen with Liam Neeson as central character Matthew Scudder, a recovering alcoholic operating as a private detective some years after deciding to leave the NYPD. Neeson was apparently Block’s top choice for the role (Harrison Ford was reportedly attached to the project at one point) and it’s easy to see why, with a string of very successful ‘Liam Neeson versus’ films in his recent back catalogue, Non-Stop being the most recent example, and this time he’s up against COMPLETE SCUMBAGS in the guise of crooks that abduct girls and collect the ransom money but then butcher their captives anyway, so there is a somewhat gleeful element of – ‘Liam Neeson is on your case, you are totally fucked’.

The film opens very strongly, with a visceral scene of violence that fits completely the rather macabre title and sets up what is to follow very promisingly indeed. As the mystery unfolds it’s easy to get caught up in it, although unfortunately it never again reaches the intensity of the opening ten minutes. Come the end, it feels like the story is clutching at straws – trying to remain interesting whilst delivering something original, but only really succeeding at very average padding to round the film off with. Part of the problem is it begins with a very Dirty Harry esque character who then goes on a redemptive arc, which may be realistic, considerate and even gritty in its own right, but it’s also a little tedious when the narrative is trying to create scenarios to then justify the retribution or violence that the character is trying to avoid. Good enough to merit future adaptations of Block’s work though (Jeff Bridges previously played Scudder in ‘8 Million Ways to Die’, back in 1986), and a decent directorial effort from Scott Frank, better known for his work on screenplays, such as ‘Malice’ 93, ‘Out of Sight’ 98, ‘Minority Report’ 02 and The Wolverine. Also with Dan Stevens and David Harbour.

22 Jump Street  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     112 Min        15

The sequel to 2012’s action comedy ’21 Jump Street’ (itself based on the late 80’s/early 90’s TV show, which helped launch the career of a certain Mr. Johnny Depp), again starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill and with plenty of in-jokes alluding to their increased budget this time around and the similar story – with the two cops returning undercover but graduating, figuratively, from impersonating high school students to becoming roommates in college. The returning central plot element is a new drug craze which has claimed at least one life on campus, and which of course allows the protagonists to accidentally try some for themselves.

Hill actually came up with the story, together with Michael Bacall (who has reportedly finished his script for the spin-off ‘Tropic Thunder’ film that is to centre on Tom Cruise’s scene stealing cameo character Les Grossman) and it is entertaining enough, with similar gags and action to the first one, though what it somehow manages to do quite well is play on the bromance between the leads, as one gets jealous of the other’s new college friends/social status and must deal with a resurgence of his feelings of isolation, and an ongoing lover’s quarrel ensues. Altogether, a slight improvement on its predecessor.

Muppets Most Wanted  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     107 Min        U

The sequel to 2011’s ‘The Muppets’ and the 8th theatrical release to feature Jim Henson’s hand puppet creations (the other six for the trivia minded among you are ‘The Muppet Movie’ 79, ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ 81, ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ 84, ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ 92, ‘Muppet Treasure Island’ 96 and ‘Muppets From Space’ 99, as well as a number of TV and direct to DVD releases) follows directly on from the previous story, here with the Muppets touring show being used as a vehicle for several high profile robberies after Kermit the frog is replaced by CONSTANTINE, a Russian criminal master mind who happens to look almost identical to poor Kermit, who is ousted from his position at Muppet mission control and forced into the Gulag under the supervision of Tina Fey, who is admittedly sporting quite a sexy Russian accent.

As before, the film is directed by James Bobin and jointly penned by him and Nicholas Stoller, and it once again features a raft of cameo roles from well known actors – some of which are amusing, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo as singing prisoners in the Gulag for example, and some of which are so brief there was precious little point to them (though this is in keeping with the show). Overall, there is a little less singing and dancing than last time around, but the same feeling of a show on display and its family friendly orientation is very much at the forefront here again, it’s just a little too safe and a little too bland, with large sections that don’t deliver much, such as the two detectives, one Muppet and one human, following the trail of thefts which just drags on. Constantine is probably the film’s strongest element, an amusing character with an accent that is a lot of fun to try and mimic, but he’s not used to full potential and he’s paired up with Ricky Gervais who seems to almost be trying to atone for previous sins, as if he’s been cuckolded by Tina Fey’s superior run at the Golden Globes and feels the need to be the but of a few sparse jokes rather than attempt to really make any.

Essentially the film is pleasant, but completely lacking any sting. ‘Muppets Tonight’ had the capacity to absolutely hit the nail on the head from time to time – I remember sitting in a friend’s living room with his entire family, none of whom I had ever met before, whilst he finished off masturbating or whatever he was doing, and everyone was watching the show in silence when the Baywatch sketch came on, featuring two fairly hopeless pigs as lifeguards who discover a mysterious object lying on the beach and decide to play volleyball with it, thoroughly enjoying themselves, unfortunately this object is very obviously shown to be a land mine which promptly blows up and kills everyone on the beach. This had me in stitches laughing. None of the others in the room, however, found it amusing which, heightened by the awkwardness of meeting someone’s family for the first time, made it EVEN FUNNIER. Shortly after I calmed down and they started desperately talking about something that was so completely unrelated that I couldn’t help but burst out laughing again, in fact, I think I was actually crying it was so funny whilst they all ignored me as the growing gibbering elephant in the corner of the room until my friend arrived to rescue me. I mean, that’s funny right?   {This also reminds me of the time another friend told me he was so obsessed with a mortal female that he’d started to see her everywhere, including presenting the weather on TV and reading the news. I laughed at him FOR FOUR HOURS}

Neither of these two recent films feature any kind of real hilarity, and the Muppets need that, they need the sort of devilish risqué humour that works so well because they are puppets and are ostensibly aimed at a younger audience. Hopefully the next one will focus more on comedy than fluff and padding – we want brazenly impish revelry, not plodding run of the mill storytelling.

20 Feet From Stardom  (2013)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                       91 Min        12A

I find it difficult to believe this was the best documentary of 2013, winning as it did the Oscar for that year. This delivers very little in the way of emotional connection or any especially revelatory or indeed relevant discussion of the material, and it couldn’t be more consciously biased when it comes to the ethnicity of the people involved. It deals with the story of back up singers trying to make it big by themselves as solo artists, but we only really hear from black singers, in fact despite comparing them to white girls at the beginning of their career near the start of the film one could certainly be forgiven for thinking there weren’t any white back up singers for decades, and indeed this is the only time the film touches on the issue of race within the industry – it seems to be suggesting its importance and then ignoring it, whilst underpinning it with its limited spread of interviewees, and since it’s purportedly about the facet of the business in general it feels slightly off. We hear from one white girl who mostly talks about how great the others are and toward the end we finally see her singing and the camera keeps jerking back to her as it inevitably pans to the black women beside her, as if someone was saying to the cameraman ‘whoops, no, better get some more shots of the token white girl in there!’. I can only suppose that white guilt after watching ’12 Years a Slave’ played a part in guiding this to success. There is also a suggestion of inherent differences in talent – are black women universally more powerful than white women? I shall have to investigate …

This race issue is kind of a sidenote though – the real problem is that it feels like we’re watching a bunch of people bemoan their ill fortunes (some of them are quite content with their lives and the successes they had though) because it was tough for them and they didn’t make it to the top despite being really talented (they are all amazing singers), but you find yourself thinking ‘what did you expect’? They were going into the music industry for goodness sake, and in no way does their experiences make them unique or indeed differentiate their path from anyone else going into any creative profession, success is never guaranteed for anyone going down that road, often regardless of talent, one absolutely needs a strategy and the music industry perhaps more than any other is full of talentless success stories that just played the game well. The women who are interviewed seem united by an inherent lack of any kind of stratagem, they either relied solely on their vocal skill or on labels, and one of them seems particularly aggressive in her approach to dealing with other people in the industry, it would be surprising if that wasn’t a contributory factor to not hitting the big time.

The central aspect of the film doesn’t work and it’s impossible to feel much for the women who’s stories we hear, or perhaps even really believe them – they start moaning about their bodies being objectified (once again, music industry, hello), which is very much jumping on a modern day band wagon, when one of the interviewers, the only time they interject to pick them up on something, says ‘But didn’t you do Playboy?’, to which the answer is ‘Oh yeah, there was that.’ Ha! In the background though, we do find more interesting material, smaller discoveries about the world of backup singing lying by the wayside of the main narrative, and there is a lot of good music in there too, but it’s so limited – I don’t recall there being any mention of Tina Turner, for example, who famously started out singing backup for her husband to be Ike Turner, and then who did make it big as a solo artist, which is a fairly unforgivable omission.

One of the best moments is Merry Clayton talking about her role singing for ‘Gimme Shelter’, one of the Stones’ most iconic tracks …